Vi Khi Nao

Vi Khi Nao is the author of seven poetry collections & of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize), the novel, Swimming with Dead Stars. Her poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her book, Suicide: the Autoimmune Disorder of the Psyche  is out of 11:11 in Spring 2023. The Fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She  was the 2022 recipient of the Jim Duggins, PhD Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. | https://www.vikhinao.com


VI KHI NAO: Almond was mentioned quite a few times on page four of About to Be Young. Can you tell me about your relationship with this edible oval nutty thing? When I was in Spain, eating pistachio ice cream for lunch, dinner, and breakfast, the ice cream maker kept repeating “almond,” and “almond” over and over to imply the almond tree growing in the winter months a few hours from Granada. It reminded me of your poem that begins with “Oh God” and ends “crying almond, almond, almond        into the night.” Will the poets in my life always have the proclivity to wail “almond” and “almond”—arresting me, seizing me in the geocentric moment with this almondness?MONROE LAWRENCE: Maybe they will: I uprooted “crying almond, almond, almond     into the night” out of a pile of drafts of poems I was reading by my friend, a poet, who I mention in the acknowledgments. But I was intrigued by what it could do positioned in the right way: I wanted to celebrate the almond line, set it apart. I’ve never eaten pistachios, and am allergic to most nuts, though I am entranced by the colour of pistachio ice cream... lurking in its barrel... Incidentally, the almond line might carry a reference to Paul Celan, I’m remembering The Elephants editor Broc Rossell made a comment to that effect early on...VKN: Celan? How so? What is it like to work with Broc? He is not at all allergic to nuts. The first time I met him in person (was it AWP DC? Or AWP Los Angeles), he was eating lots of cashews? Almonds? Because his metabolism is so so so high. He is columnar, narrow, and fastigiate like those northern evergreen trees or those tall and skinny aspen trees with eyes. Did he consume your poems with an accelerated metabolism as he does with the nuts you are allergic to? And, how did he consume your poetry? What was the process like? And, since you are allergic to nuts, are you allergic to flowers too?ML: Not that I know of re: flower allergy. I’m definitely jealous of people that know the names of all the flowers. I imagine an allergy to certain flowers would make one liable to know their names. There’s this Allen Grossman poem “Sentinel Yellowwoods,” where the speaker goes on a walk in the woods after learning the Latin names of various plants and suddenly has this powerful experience of the natural world… yet it took a cataloguing of the names of the flora to enable that experience of wonder. I definitely relate to that. Broc was so kind and precise and fun. It was great to work with someone who lived for so long in Vancouver and moved through the same spaces I did. It’s also lovely to imagine one has been emailing with a columnar, fastigiate person. He was really generous to me with About to Be Young and helped me to learn about aspects of typography, design, etc. There is a Celan poem “Count the almonds”... in a lot of Celan’s poetry there is an investment of small, countable objects with a strangled lyrical intensity—as if a poet might call any noun into the night and have that named thing resonate. I like the idea, too, that the intonation rather than the denotative meaning receives emphasis in Celan. How does one manage the intonation on the page? Framing “almond” language on page 4 was one way of coding or curating intonation.VKN: I am also jealous of people who know the names of flowers, but also trees by heart. My friend, Joe Markovich, is such a person. He lives in Seattle and tells me all sort of things about Douglas fir, bald cypress, etc. Now that I know you are not allergic to flowers, how did you, Monroe, “edit the violets” yourself? And, what does that mean to you? ML: I have to say, to some Americans, that I am from just north of Seattle; my parents, just north of Seattle, are both such people capable of naming every tree. In Proust—violets, hawthorns—I just see a blurry, if beautiful, mass of colours and leaves.Like many of the poems in the book, “I / edit / the violets myself” was excavated out of a much longer poem. So maybe the poem refers to my journey to it. I had to endure weeks of carving other, semi-superfluous language away to let myself be okay with that being the poem. I think, too, the lines want to take responsibility for their shameful impingement on a like ineluctable beauty of the natural world. One way About to Be Young works to pry open embarrassment is by having language that isn’t just inspired by a place of shame or embarrassment or failure but is actually… aesthetically shameful. Actually has lines that are clunky, excessive, failures. So, I take responsibility for editing the violets.VKN: Why didn’t your parents name you after a tree? Is Monroe a tree? Where have you not been okay with something being the poem? ML: I acquired my name via the mountains of Scotland, called Munros… I think Scotland was a special place for my parents. I regret though that I was too ensconced in the sixth Harry Potter book when I visited Scotland in sixth grade to gaze in any way lingeringly upon the Munros.One thing I discovered writing About to Be Young and other poetry was I had to truly let go of what I wanted the poem to be. Sometimes I will write something that I feel sentimental about or that I think needs to stay a certain way and not be revised, but in such cases I generally accept that it may not be work that anyone is interested in. It took years of work to let go of intention in my writing process. I am against intention.VKN: Ah, Monroe, you are a mountain. There is a saying (maybe Vietnamese? maybe from my mother?)  that it’s harder to move mountains than to change someone’s way of being/personality. You are tall and lanky yourself—can someone move you if they want to? I met you when you were at Brown. You came once to meet me at a three story Victorian home I was couchsurfing at. There you told me you had fallen deeply in love. It was a terrible year for me. The year you came in from that abrasive wind in that abrasive month. Did you miss Brown, Monroe? ML: I do miss Brown and the incredibly rich friendships I made there—the intensity of focusing on writing and process for two years straight. I feel moved all the time. I enjoyed our visit so much, and writing with you over tea. I’m sorry to hear that it was such a terrible year.VKN: What do you feel moved by? Wind? Instrument? Gender? I am sorry too. ML: All of the above. It’s windy, and cold in Pawtucket right now. Moving. I feel almost… no gender right now—moving. I feel the coffee and tofu I’m consuming, which are moving.VKN: The cover of your book reminds me of two pigeons trying to climb an Aztec pyramid. I discovered from my recent trip to Brown that your partner drew it. I know you have always wanted their work to be on the cover of your work. How did you decide on this particular drawing? And, that burnt red? Its color? It feels you—like a sweater I can imagine you donning. ML: One of the first things I officially “did” at Brown University was to introduce the poet Camille Dungy while wearing a burnt red sweater; I was sort of manically energetic and probably did a memorably poor job. But the rest of my time there the writer Colin Channer referred to me with a winning grin as “the guy in the red sweater.” So you’re not wrong.I went through a lot of my partner’s archives and sketchbooks trying to find a cover. I liked the combination of messiness and pattern—symmetry—in the image, two effects I think the poems also aim to bring together. The birds on the cover are mirrored, but one of them is clearly drawn hurriedly on a scanned piece of ruled 8.5x11 paper, that is sort of torn up, so it feels both like a draft that came together quickly and something possessing an alien, preordained plan. A lot of their art has this sprawling asymmetry. I see that as an interest we maybe share.VKN: I am curious—how did your morning unravel? Did you make coffee? Go to a coffee shop? Or did you haul an ax over your shoulder to chop down a tree? And, what is your favorite poem from this collection? I just flipped through your book and I saw the word “nephew-genital” out of context. It alarmed me a little. I did not expect a baby penis to make its way through your Canadian soul. Tell me more about Anna. Which poem is most-Anna? And, which one is least? ML: I blame “nephew-genital” entirely on the literary technique of assonance. This morning I made coffee and finished the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s novel Noopiming. I really loved it. It was weirdly reassuring to encounter, since it uses a form similar to the one in a novel I’ve been trying to write for ages and which I’ve sort of privately worried is too formally weird. The rest of the morning I worried about how I would appear in the interview we were doing later in the day.My favourite poem is maybe on page 7, “I want to play seriously on the roof,” if only because it’s the most grammatically normative and proves to inexperienced poetry readers that I’m not insane. Its shape and grammar are a tribute to J.H. Prynne’s poem “The Holy City,” whose lineation I copied and which seems written by an alien creature from another world. The Anna of About to Be Young is a character, maybe, even as the emotions that led me to write about them were genuine. Not a character but… distinct from the person I now know and love.VKN: How is it distinct? Also, does your novel have a title? How is it formally strange? ML: As I worked to write and revise the latter half of About to Be Young, its language led me away from the real experiences with Anna that inspired them to a place that was, perhaps, emotionally authentic but fictional in its particulars. I think that love poems can both celebrate and disfigure their object in this way. Well, they probably always disfigure it. So I’m eager to distinguish the name or letters A-n-n-a in the book from a person in the world.My novel’s called Remembrance Day, indexing a scene at the center of the narrative that happens at a Remembrance Day ceremony, a sort of Canadian “Veteran’s Day” at which one is meant to celebrate and—indeed—to remember the sacrifices made by soldiers in WWI and II. At six and seven years old I was totally transfixed by these ceremonies—the bagpipes are playing, there is a moment of silence, everyone solemnly gathers—and I used to just feel that that was how we were supposed to be behaving all the time. Life is so intense and emotional and only the pomp and ceremony of Remembrance Day really felt equal to it. At any rate, the scene also wants to interrogate the uncanny commonwealth whiteness displayed during the ceremony and to ask why the day is conducted the way it is—what it means for the communities that practice it.The form of Remembrance Day and About to Be Young are similar to Noopimig’s but Simpson develops it in her own incredible way. It was really incredible to read. Minimalism, emphasis on the page break—there is sometimes only a sentence or two on a page or a single paragraph, or two paragraphs. VKN: Last night I watched a film titled The Perfect Candidate directed by the first female Saudi Arabian filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mamsour. I loved the film and in the film there was a lovely lyric that the protagonist’s father sang over and over again when he was touring: “you caused me trouble and exhausted me”—a song about love. Have you experienced a love that is of such devastatingly romantic caliber? ML: In a book called Bitter Green, there is a line that helped me—well, to live—but also to write About to Be Young: “do not suppose that the things you feel most keenly are yourself.” I wanted to think about that, what do we prioritize in locating the self and ought we really to prioritize intensity of feeling. Maybe the self is banal. One of the things I like about lyric poetry is that it does seem to prioritize that intensity: that’s what lyric poetry… is. So About to Be Young asks, as so many books do, what relationship poems have to the full, robust self that is their speaker. “Devastating romantic love” is the perfect or maybe just clichéd subject for lyric poetry because it embraces excess and embraces the loss of self to feeling, or the identification of the self with intensity. Anna and I sometimes laugh at my plangent reconstruction of that “devastating” time but I’m glad the book is a record of it. Of “devastating romantic love”... !VKN: So many of your poems from this collection are so minimal and short, but they are so powerful and charged with intense emotionality and philosophical purity. Did they get short like so through the editing/eviscerating process? Or did they mostly arrive fully formed as sparse (though not meager) entities? ML: Almost none of the poems arrived fully-formed or smoothly or organically. Or easily. It was only when I began to delete and carve away and to stop caring about the initial impulse out of which they arose that the work really came alive. I was also young and… —about to be young, when I wrote them. I’d spent a long time writing ironic, knowing poems that shielded themselves cautiously against anticipated criticism and enemies I imagined populating the experimental poetry world. Finally, I gave up self-defense and wrote these craft-driven aesthetically polished poems that celebrated being an embarrassed and sentimental young person in semi-innovative form that my peers and professors were urging me to write.VKN: How old are you now, Monroe? The depth of your poems’ sentiment conceals itself in the line breaks and large blank spaces—when you divorce yourself so often (as many times over as you deem necessary)—does it impede your desire to get institutionally married? To line breaks? To vast empty spaces? Do you grow tired? Does hebetude ever find you? ML: I just turned 28—a time of deep hebetude, vast opportunity. My friends are generally and to some extent skeptical of marriage or endeavoring to imagine new forms of companionship. That endeavor sometimes involves a capitulation to normative structures or an acknowledgment of the like implacable and reifying power of social strictures. I did, however, “marry” two friends last year in Concord MA, which was really beautiful. So I have no coherent position on institutional marriage. But am definitely otherwise worried about what institutionality permits and prevents in art and poetry...VKN: Ah, 28. It’s a good age to exist. I am old now. And since I am so old, I misread one of your poems. You had written “Golden like a fad / of caring. A bowl of pottery.” I had chosen to read it as “A bowl of poetry.” If you did have a bowl of poetry in front of you, what would be swimming it it? Would you use a fork, spoon, chopstick to eat it? Or would you consume it with your fingers: raw, bare, barren hands? Are you a neat eater? Or are you voracious like a famished coyote? Would you wait until your nails grow long and windy and twisty to eat?ML: I have poor table manners, probably. I think I would like to eat a poem so sly and recklessly formed that I choke on it and almost die and only just survive to tell the tale.VKN: What is a good film & tea to co-consume with About to Be Young, do you think? ML: In 2016 I met a writer who studies the films of Robert Beavers and who introduced me to the films of Gregory Markopoulos. I traveled to Greece that year on a generous and very very enabling grant, and watched the most recently restored 12 hours of Gregory Markopoulos’s film Eniaios. (The full film is 80 hours.) The screening was held in a remote village in Arcadia: Sitting in a field and watching the entirely silent film that is composed mostly of black leader react against the night sky made it impossible to separate out the discrete art object—the film—from my own private experience of making the pilgrimage to see it. I think that is how all art works. Or else, that film really invites you to think about the impossibility of teasing apart the artwork from your self, history, position. I sense Beavers, Markopoulos’s partner, would be disturbed to find out—or has already been disturbed to find out—that a few of his own 16mm films are on YouTube. He and Markopoulos are super invested in site and setting and context when it comes to experiencing their work and usually you can only view their 16mm work at screenings. I saw Pitcher of Colored Light at the Whitney in New York City. I shouldn’t mention the digital versions, maybe. But, those Youtube videos have meant a lot to me; I recommend them, Beavers’ gentle twisting of the turret, the image blurring upward, with your favourite kind of tea.

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YOU MET DEATH ON LEX by Vi Khi Nao + Jessica Alexander

and asked her to meet you at a hotel in BrooklynYou would not meet her in Vegas where the sounds of your mother’smovements came through the walls between your roomsMeanwhile, in another state Death courted our brothers on Uber and GrinderAs you removed one blind eye from the invisible pocket of your black braYou realized that your memory of your brother had an invisible purseWith its zipper sewn on its side and its contents were pennies or wishesSo when they hit the surface of your eye the world you knew rippledBack then all you wanted was a plate of black olives impaled by toothpickscharred from a wild fire that raged Northern CaliforniaIn winter, you wanted a fireplace, too, and a thick soupyou weren’t allergic toDuring autumn rain the earthworm on your sternum writhedAnd you were deciding whether to die or live your life weddedTo Zinfandel’s fading legs or to walk through an inch of snowTo buy three mangosteens from a corner grocery storeBack when I knew none of this and knew you less, I climbed wetStairwells, snowflakes melted on my eyelashes, and clumps of snow fell off the trees,which were heavy and shaggy and white and greenI pulled myself close beneath my heavy coat and the train I got on began movingIn and out of the elongated, silvery body of an eel while the conductorSpoke through his amplified microphone attached like a second, semi-translucent,chain-mail-like skin, “Do you need anything? Say chocolate?” And, the trainyeel obediently responded, which surprised you greatly, “The compressor in me is broken.It’s like the heart of the AC and, no, all I need is a new shoulder, honey.”As if the train seat had been a bassinet, the engine a chimneycoughing up clouds, I knew that I would drift off in smoke and for another yearOr two I’d doze. Back then I told everyoneMy favorite thing about Pennsylvania is leaving Pennsylvania on a train.Especially after Clarice Lispector spit black tobacco into a tin can and left itnear the railing. I have always known this about love: the ground youplace it on does not exist. I knew, too, that sleep is not a type of aonairwine, situated above my consciousness, waiting for their insomnia of volcanicash to make me drift like a listless soul. Beneath that Lispector phlegm, that thickoral mucus, hint of smoke and ash, was an answer to a question I had not yet learned to ask.So, all the way to Brooklyn, I slept.  The train rocked my body back and forthlike a jug of water inside of a stroller. From the window view, the effervescenttrees were woefully mourning their winter-torn sleeves, standing tall and hip-widelike pregnant women in a dream, I exited the train, and climbed the stairs to your hotel room,where you lay on your back begging Death to let you sleep on the railroad trackor take pesticides in the countryside with South Korea. The winter had beenlong and wet and when, in a dream’s sunset, I crept up the steps, I like tothink Death heard what you could not hear yet,because she startled and she left and the sun spread, warm and diluted, onthe backs of my eyelids and I woke just as the train screamed into PennStation’s open mouth.  With the grayish duffel bag strapped over my left shoulder,I lowered and bowed my head while my feet slowly marchedthrough the crowd’s soporific mourning of procession.Each human head was a dark blue, wilted tulip, its witless petals droopedand sagged heavily against the gullible sound of footsteps amplifying andtriangulating the proximity of my distance. I shoveled along the cylindricalcement walls, into the yellow glow of a stairwell, and stepped up just as thesun set on Vernon Boulevard.Meanwhile, on the other side of Pulaski Bridge, maybe 40 minuteswalking distance, you sobbed intermittently into a grocery bag which wavedlike a half-staffed, mortified flag in the wind, & eventually it floated away from youas you stopped at the corner of Nassau where clumps of sooty snow hadmelted and frozen again and the walk sign flashed white and you crossedthe avenue just like the living do. The short walk was the longest walk you ever tookin your very short life—the compelling wind was pushing you and you likea pregnant woman, pushing you towards the metro, pushing you into the pavement,pushing you into the snow. By then it was night and I stood beside a giant windowon the 21st floor of 474 48th Avenue watching the Empire State Buildingchange color. The black sky was perforated with a thousand tiny squaresof light, each one ushering me, like a Russian novel, into its own domestictragedy: a tv glowing in a living room, a couple eating take out at a kitchencounter, a man smoked on a narrow balcony and curled himself against the wind.To stand beyond the reach of weather, I discovered, was yet anotherway I may be lonely. It was all emptiness, staring into the private things thatcouldn’t stare back at me. Sometimes the intimacy of distancewas too much. The glasses on the ridge of my nose refused to be that lonelyrose, fading, wilting from that indeterminate breath that had fogged up their glass.I took the elevator down 21 flights to the street where black cabs stoodwaiting and a driver asked if he was waiting for me. I assumed no onewas and I crossed the street. At that point, I had met you twice.Once I took an Uber to a restaurant where clavicles were juxtaposedbetween wooden and metal chairs shifting in and out of periphery, butyour clavicle was most prominent of all. You sat diagonally from me, silentlysipping hot water with a wedge of lemon, your fingers spread with gentlestrength around the teacup’s opening. You ordered salmon and ate slowlywith your eyes shyly downcast. For a moment, I sat inside the soft light ofyour quiet pleasure, the setting sun lit the wooden table and glowedagainst your profile. You squinted slightly, and delicately speared small flakes ofsalmon. You hardly spoke save when someone said I was adorable, and you shylyraised your eyes to mine and you agreed. When you left, the placeyou sat was stainless and the sun fell behind you, leaving the city in adismal neglect of chance. I, however, collected myself and you placed mein a box called Wisdom. I waited by the light for life to change her colorsfrom infancy to myopia. You waited and waited for the city to changewhat we were unable to change until four years into the future. That evening,sitting with my legs curled up by the hotel bed, I thoughtabout my brother, Jim, who had a way of holding me tight inhis arms when we slept. Years later, when he took a large bubblebath full of foam in India, I kept on having a recurring dream of Jimdying and of having to announce the devastating news to new peopleeach night. We met, the first time, inside a crowded conventioncenter. Djuna Barnes, famous fictionist, wore a cowboy hat. She stoodseveral rows from me, and laughed with such exquisite abandon. By contrast,you stood patient as the sunlight, and I leaned toward yourwarmth the way some plants twist out of shade. I have alwaysbeen so reticent in the company of others, my sapphic shynesspeeling out of me like a clementine in front of a bay of unripe avocados oroverripe raspberries. You gave me chocolate and two books and later, thenext day or the day after that, I could not stop crying while I waited for mytrain to come and take me back.Four years ago, in that endless Pennsylvania winter,I wrote you, “All I do is grade papers but I have a fold-out.”It was a faceless message, the kind written in the quiet, iridescentrecess of my idleness, the kind that arrived after a storm has been builtright into the towering headdress of a tornado, the kind that walkedout of you like a vagrant beggar from a beach house near the sea. When Iwas young, I coped with my queerness, my handsome isolation, myoverwrought loneliness by smoking weed, one string ofvaporous vapor ornamentation after another, by the window and climbingthrough it after dark. My body was strikingly vigorous, though I spentmost of its innocent muscularity by being restlessly listless, walking inand out of kitchen doors like I knew the difference between having awallet and David Foster Wallace. You were reticent and precise. The windblew into a window and the stacks of papers before each paidgrader swirled around the room, save yours, which you held downwith your free hand, while tapping your sharpened pencilagainst the tabletop. The others, limp and languid like overwateredhouseplants, shuffled listlessly between the window and the vendingmachine. You did not hear them. Your focus was unparalleled, your eyesscanned the page, you made a swift mark, and moved on. They nudgedtheir papers to your side of the table. I cannot help but picture them: boorishbrothers and grinning stepsisters, turning the key in the lock, and leaving. Youdid not notice. You turned the page, and tapped your pencil againstthe tabletop. Then it was five o’clock, a winter night. The castratedphotographer pushed his bike over the ice and up the rollinghills and past the frosted cornfields to your door. I wonder what it was liketo say goodnight. Your profile, your steady eyes fixed on the horizon,and your silence, while he confessed he’d like to dip his fist into your head.He said it would come out sweet and soaked in golden honey. He painted you a blurrypicture of yourself. Your wrist bone bent oddly to the left. He had a sheep’s headshipped to you from Morocco and a Nordic Wolffish from the Arctic Circle.He wrote a sonnet each day and sent them in a box he’d carved fromwhalebone inside a box made of glue and pigeon’s nests. You did notknow what to do with all of these intoxicated gifts. You could not carrythem around and so you bought a plastic storage box, foldedeach gift neatly into scented tissue paper, and closed the lid. I wroteyou in Pennsylvania. I said, “I have a fold-out,” then I put onmy headphones and spent the evening walking under the yellowglow of street lamps, the red brick, the sparkling snow. That wasnot the same year. I walked like a downcast philosopherbeneath the Kinzua Bridge, measuring my time and distance slowly. All ofmy vacant thoughts were in the clouds, waiting for theprecipitation of a long- lost meaty memory of meeting a futureyou to rain back down to me, storming my petite form into anambulated oblivion. My life has been this long, arduous academic road.My head always in the dense pages. Those long endless paragraphswhere the wheat, the cornfield, and the muted stone of an idea traveledback and forth between prolixity and nothingness. From time to time, Iwonder if you would marry me even after our galaxy stoppedexpanding. I wonder on nights like this if you would mutely climbinside my submarine and sit beside me until all the speed boats spedpast. I wanted to walk beside you up a narrow stairwell with arms fullof paper bags and rice and cabbage and keys jangling in your hand. Iwondered whether you’d love me more if we fell onto the bed orif instead, I scrubbed the crisper down before dumping the vegetables in, orwhether you’d forgive me if I slept and the sound of engines carriedmy dream to the beach and if a smog curtain closed behind me and if Iwent on wondering whether you liked wrist bones or clavicles best, or if Iwent on wanting, in spite of it, to fold my mouth around your hip, would you know?Would you hold my face in your hands like a melon and carry my head home?We’d hardly met. I was learning so many words do not mean whatI thought they did. I have come to understand moisture in a very differentway. Words often, despite my heavy proclivity for wanting them to, do nothave much moisture in them. They lack water and something else.Something I can’t pin my fingers on. Something to do with acousticsignals or density or the waxy content in the cranium of dolphins. Afterreaching into my armpits in the dark afternoon many years later fortwo wheats and three stones, I found your fingers cracking out laughinglike they heard a terrible knock- knock joke from the edge of theiralpha-keratin. I wonder if you would love me less if all my clocks andobligations cracked wide open and I oozed out, formless as raw egg or if Iwas not ticklish or if I owned an orange cat. The kind that spoke Cantoneseor Vietnamese with a Southern drawl. The kind that a mandarin orangewould mistake for its distant, house-arrested cousin. Some morningswhen I woke up in the early light to unlower the blinds,the kind that made you more sultry and less formal in the Houstondarkness, I imagined you being a fruit basket that someoneaccidentally left on the third floor of a vacant apartment complex. Therewere bell peppers that didn’t shake like bells and there were mythologiesin you that didn’t arrive with a broken chariot on its coeval asphalt.In times like these, you don’t ever take the elevator with me to the rooftopwith the lavish bar and flamboyant cocktails that night we orderedcabernet and sunk into the plush cushions and did not drink a sip of it and I feltas if I’d stepped inside a future where I did not exist or a memory thatbelonged entirely to someone else. The night was all around us and, foran instant, I was certain it was me and not my brother who was dead.But in the morning when I raised the blindsyour stillness, which is either that of a hummingbirdor its opposite, is so exquisitely composite and fatalistic and soI try hard to step inside of it. A fantasy you once told me.I lean over you. I brush your cheek. My neck crowned bya collar of trees. I say, Baby, how did you sleep? I slept poorly andunevenly—like my subconsciousness sat on an old- fashionedscale—the owlgift vintage—the kind that represents truth and fairness. Buton the other side, the other side of your amnesia, the one you had onlyknown briefly and intermittently, the one outweighing everythingabout the rapid heartbeats of raven who sat (unevenly) on an old redwoodtree by the side of road. Compelled by distance and sadness, I swiftly cupyour face like an old beggar cleaning knives for the endangered denizensof the foggy city he dreams up each night, then watches swirl slowlydown the drain of each morning, leaving his belly full of asadness that is jagged and undefined. It is possible,of course, to miss someone who sleeps beside you, too,and so I remove a hybrid hyacinth from a drawer of atree and whisper soporific leaves into it so that it is alwaysfalling asleep by exfoliating into what you alwayslove and can love. There is a mist waiting outside like a widow.Her eyes are soft and wet with tears or sweat from running upan evanescent hill. I try to run my hands through her near the mulberrywell as a way of telling you that I wish your heartbeat smelled like a teakettle with fresh mint stuck in its sprout: metallic and fresh and bloomingwith an arc of wheat. Longing so thick makes my handssomnolent, even my knuckles lull the handle of ateakettle to sleep. In your absence, I pour hot water up intoa mug, with a wedge of lemon and take the steam into myselfas if I were pulling on your breath. Meanwhile, a livestreamof the Governor’s address drones on in the background, I sighinto a kitchen that is newly emptied of you and the kettle sighs,too, and the governor says it’s impossible to quantify suffering.But I have drifted to a time long before Ida or Covid-19, I amrousing my Manhattan- bound self from a dream,and pulling her by her winter sleeves, up the endless stepsof a Brooklyn hotel, ordering death to leave.

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JANICE LEE in conversation with VI KHI NAO

VI KHI NAO: I read the first half of your Imagine A Death during a flight into San Francisco. I am currently in Boulder—where I think the landscape ofthe high elevation may have altered my relationship with your work in the second half. Many of your sentences are long - like Bela Tarr long - and they require strong lung capacity to fully experience, inhale the depth and intensity of your gaze. 

Being near this mountain, I feel I could acclimate to your long, gorgeous, beautiful sentences that open one world into another world into another world. 

Has this long form (the long sentence) been a constant companion in your writing life—the one that you take long walks, long meandering with, the one whom you desire to stay faithful to or is it a decade obsession with an endpoint? 

JANICE LEE: First, I’m grateful for your use of the word “acclimate” here. In thinking about landscapes, which are really important to me, I’m really thinking about climate. And climate not just in terms of the weather, but in terms of everything that is and has been and will be, everything that constitutes the space and the world, everything that unites us. So for me, the sentences are an extension of that kind of immersion in the world, in the entanglement of space. There isn’t just a body in a space, this rigid category between background and foreground, or external and internal, but where does the climate end and the body begin? I’ve always loved slowness and long takes. Bela Tarr, yes. I read Pasolini’s essay “Observations on the Long Take” in college and it changed the way I watched films and saw the world. But the long sentence as a form for me. I haven’t always written this way, no. I’ve definitely had long sentences here and there, but for a while, I was drawn to fragments. Long sentences, like fragments, are still an extension of expressing what can’t be articulated or encompassed in traditional sentence structures. What I love about long sentences is the ability to get lost, and I think this is important. The opportunity to get lost once in a while.


VKN: Do you think pain—in the tradition of length—is a type of slowness? When I study your sentences—your long sentences—& I go through this metaexperience (this slow, extended moment) where at the beginning I am an innocent, possibly naive person, and by the end of your sentence, I feel I have lived five cat lives. I am old and senescent—maybe in the way you have depicted the senescence of the tomato—Do you think long sentences like a camera with the widest lens possible—in either film or photography—are more technically capable of capturing pain—psychological or physical—better? Or do you think the fragments are equally or even more capable of capturing?

JL: That’s such an interesting question! Maybe pain, rather than a type of slowness, is a type of presence. I think about how trauma reconstitutes and reasserts itself in the present constantly, and how the present moment might be tethered to a moment in the past, or, become capable of expanding outwards. I think too about the difference between pain and suffering, at least from a Buddhist point of view. How do we let the pain in, how do we let it manifest? How can we acknowledge pain but not allow ourselves to become attached to it? I think that long sentences do capture a wider lens, the roving camera, so to speak, but it’s about the meandering, the letting go of a defined and linear trajectory, the reminder that no matter the length and windiness of the path, one can still arrive home. The long sentence also can encompass changing vantage points, the multiplicity within a single gaze, or multiple gazes that can exist simultaneously. Any departure from the standard sentence, whether it’s moving into the territory of unending sentences, or fragmentation, I think is about reaching towards a kind of articulation that doesn’t yet exist.


VKN: Do you think trauma can operate in the antipodes—delay the presence? A little. Or a lot. When I read the way you captured “trauma” in your work—I felt like a car going through a car wash.  You are drawn to slowness and to length—n order to create and write Imagine A Death—did the interiority of your consciousness have to mimic your form? Or can you lead a fast and furious life and still produce work the opposite of your project’s vision?

JL: Ok, so I laughed out loud because The Fast and the Furious is one of my favorite film franchises. I’m interested in all the different kinds of inhabitation. I love being immersed, living in, sleeping in, dozing off in worlds like the films of Bela Tarr or Tsai Ming-Liang. I love to be reminded to slow down, to not treat time like a commodity. But I’m also a product of the ’90s and capitalism and action films and chaos cinema and I love the adrenaline rush that occurs inside the safety net of an action film like The Fast and the Furious where somehow, after all of the explosions, it’s still about family and returning home. But yes, trauma messes with time. It can delay, expand, protract, contract, blur, instigate. It’s a reminder that time isn’t linear or constant. I was thinking about what the long take does for me as a viewer, and how I experience the long sentences of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but while writing, I also didn’t feel like I had a choice. It was as if the writing was almost channeled through me and poured out. The sentences didn’t want to end, couldn’t end, yet.


VKN: Yes, I read that in an interview of yours. Where Satantango and Fast and Furious co-exist in you—you quoted from Ufologist Jacques Vallee: “Mathematical theory often has to confront the fact that two contradictory theories can explain the same data. A solution is inevitably found not by choosing one of the contradictory theories, but by going to the next, third level.” Do you think Imagine A Death is your ontological or mathematical attempt at going to the third level? You were a pre-med major before pursuing biology and writing—had you continued in the medical life—do you think that Imagine A Death is a slow, frame by frame capture of you being a neurosurgeon placing trauma on the operating table, dissecting it second by second? Or is Imagine A Death a type of slow film or photograph in which you develop in the dark room of your imagination?

JL: In some ways Imagine a Death is a gesture of anti-colonialist sentimentality, in its narrative form and through the grammatical resistance of the long sentences, but it’s also about resisting colonial notions of the apocalypse and finality and redemption. This book felt like such a spiritual undertaking. In terms of the analogy with the medical life, Kerotakis and Daughter feel more like the neurosurgeon with a knife performing surgery. And Imagine a Death is more like the accidental but also utterly intentional slow film that was created because I left my camera on in my back pocket, or like those accidental iPhone pictures that capture more than you intend.


VKN: I mentioned pain in your work in relationship to the long sentences because of your compassionate, thorough, expansive consideration and contemplation in regards to apocalyptic suicide (your depiction of the suicidal pigeons) and apocalyptic rape (the pregnant goat that was gang-raped and eventually died). In your long sentences, you slowed down these moments—not just the moment where the writer was abused & revisiting that abuse (re-seeing a moment through a different, more acute lens, or replacing the camera/lens of that gaze with a broader, meta-lens,) and you process that grief (the loss of comprehension for inhumanity and brutality) for the readers. Do you think you can lend compassion to another who is lacking in compassion? Can writing/art/literature alter the empathic vernacular of a psychopath/an abusive person?

JL: Pain is a part of life, right, but how do we decide to exist in the world and in relation to other people despite or because of our pain? How do we desire to be free and imagine a kind of freedom beyond the causes and conditions of what currently bind us? The entanglement of grief and trauma and abuse and how our wounds shape our pasts and our futures—it’s all so complicated and difficult to look at, because it involves us having to look at the ways in which we have been complicit or complacent to or have perpetuated pain in the world, in response to the ways in which we have been harmed, or in the name of survival. Both of those incidents with the animals, and others in the book, I hated having to write them, but they are part of this world, and most importantly, they are part of us. When you ask about lending compassion to another, even if they’re lacking in compassion, I think the difficult answer is yes. We have to. We have to lend compassion to others (which, to clarify, isn’t the same as justification), and, we have to lend compassion for ourselves, which often is harder.

VKN: What are some of the challenges you face in writing a book of such a sophisticated caliber, Janice? And, were you able to resolve some of those challenges? Or are they life-long sorrows that you must revisit frequently by inducting a new birth/book into the world?

JL: Thanks for saying that, Vi. There are the constant challenges around articulation and the limitations of the structures in narrative and language. This book is especially important for me because it really does feel like it took a lifetime to write, the entirety of my being. I had to be open enough to be able to face all of my own demons in this way, and I had to write all of my other previous books to be able to understand myself in relation to language the way I do now. But it’s all ongoing. I feel very drained, but also relieved, after this book. It may be a while before I write another novel. There is some more breathing to do first.


VKN: What are some of your demons? 

JL: My own fears and expectations around success, my doubts and grievances around what it means to be a writer, my feelings of inadequacy and self-worth, my processing of childhood wounds and relationship to my parents, the abusive relationships I’ve been in and my own unconscious complicity in perpetuating toxicity or harm, my own struggles with depression and suicidal impulses.


VKN: What is your definition of success? Also, there are 46 chapters in your Imagine A Death—do you have a favorite chapter? One you return to frequently because it captured something you were unable to capture for so long? One of my favorite moments (Chapter 20) is about a framed photograph dropped in a dumpster “miraculously” finding itself re-hung again in the same spot on the wall. There was something very tender and meta about this moment. How often we discard things because we believe others don’t value them or care as much as we do—but we are often wrong. People do care. I often think about sentences you have written—ones which you may cut down or deleted completely—and how another person may find tremendous value in their existence. Are there sentences you have erased that you feel deep sorrow for? Which sentences of yours should we re-hang? Also, how long does it take for you to write one of those long sentences? Ten minutes? An hour? How does the passage of time operate in the production part of your writing? 

JL: I want to think of success, not as being about achievement or merit or legitimacy, but about desire and attempt and expression and existence. Rather than being tied to notions of good or bad, and rather than being seen in opposition to failure, why can’t success just be, not as a point of comparison or power over someone/something? Can’t failure be a kind of success? Can’t learning from a mistake be a kind of success? Can’t success be a gesture of reaching without turning into grasping, without becoming an attachment or way to measure us against each other?

I love that with the photograph moment as well, and it’s actually an example of a way that the novel started to influence the real world. That photograph is based on a real image (in real life, it’s a painting that my sister created when we were very young). She hates the painting but we had kept it because our mom loved it so much. The night after I wrote that scene in my manuscript, the actual painting fell off the wall and crashed onto the floor. It happened in the middle of the night; no one was around. We were all asleep and were awoken by the sound of breaking glass.

I don’t know if I have a favorite chapter in the book. Right now, I’m quite fond of “The Dream,” where everyone is burning alive, because it says something about death and intimacy for me.

I’ve deleted countless sentences, but I can’t remember them now. They will manifest again, I’m sure, in some other reincarnated form. 

In writing this book, some of the sentences came out very quickly, over maybe 20-30 minutes, and some took more time, hours, or several writing sessions. I only listened to Russian Circles while writing this book, so something about the tension and momentum of that music helped me with rhythm, and helped me keep going.


VKN: A lot of your work that has arrived in this world exists in the capacity of fiction, though you also have a book of essays, a poetry book, etc. You operate on so many different levels—aesthetical strata—from being a graphic designer, professor, editor—how do you desire others to view or is it even possible to categorize your Imagine A Death? Is it experimental documentarism? Autofiction dressed like a bouquet of suicidal pigeons? If such a thing were to exist, what is an ideal way to pigeonhole you?

JL: As I’ve learned to articulate better, especially after hearing/reading writers like Renee Gladman and Matthew Salesses, the category or genre as a construct is important in terms of the expectations it creates, or dismisses, subverts, haunts, resists. And I am operating within certain expectations, but I also want to draw attention to the inadequacy or limitations of those expectations. In that vein, I do very much think of this as a “novel,” but one that hopefully expands on what a novel is “supposed” to be or look like. I love “autofiction dressed like a bouquet of suicidal pigeons,” though I don’t think Amazon accepts that as a genre category


VKN: Also, what Korean film (to watch) and Korean dish—an appetizer perhaps or a gallimaufry of dishes—should be paired with your Imagine A Death? I love when wine is properly paired with food. And, I think of film as a type of wine.

JL: Oh my, such a difficult question because it’s so hard to choose. Okay. The Korean film would be Poetry directed by Lee Chang Dong.

And the Korean dish is one that I haven’t had yet before, but it’s appeared to me in my dreams and my ancestors are insisting that I need to eat it: Gwamaegi, which is a certain kind of dried fish.


VKN: Thank you for this beautiful pairing! I love dried fish and will have to try Gwamaegi when I re-read your book again with Poetry playing in the background. Many writers of Asian persuasion feel compelled to include Asian words or popular phrases or sentences or fragments or Asian language scripts in their work. Your Imagine A Death is mostly devoid of these ethnic gestures. I often feel that experimental writing allows one to be a devoted citizen of the weird, where experimentalism is a type of universal ethnicity. Do you feel at home in experimental writing? Where the textuality and materiality of the experience dominate the narrative mainframe of the literary?   

JL: Such a good question. So at least in this book, I didn’t want the identities of characters to be specified. So I avoid those kinds of identity markers. But in terms of thinking of experimental writing more broadly, my relationship to it has changed throughout my life. In my earlier work, especially after my MFA, I was very drawn to “experimental writing” as a space to resist conventional forms and the canon, as a site for resistance and transgression. This also coincided with my politics at the time, which was much more about disruption and dismantling. At this particular point though, I’m thinking about things a little bit differently. It’s not just about resisting the dominant paradigm, because this then just re-centers the dominant narrative over and over again. Instead, I want to think about this as another worldview that is equally valid, another way to see and be in the world. So how might stories and sentences not only resist formal conventions, but also work against the myth of resolution and redemption, open up our biases around narrative and plot and character? How are our beliefs and assumptions around narrative structures and language related to our fears and beliefs about the state or ongoing future of the world?


VKN: Intimacy & vulnerability seem to be compelling materials for your work. What is the most intimate thing you have experienced lately, and how has it changed you as a writer? 

JL: Okay, I was trying to think of something more sophisticated, but what’s popping into my head and is probably my most honest answer is doing psilocybin mushrooms with my boyfriend for the first time, when we literally melted into each other and became an amorphous blob. Doing mushrooms has also been a major portal for me, especially after the recent deaths of my dad and my dog Maggie, and has allowed me to speak with my ancestors and the dead, and the entire living world around me.

VKN: I am sorry to hear of your losses. Were you close to your dad? How han is your Imagine A Death? And, can you talk about your own visibility in the writing world? Outside of cinema and the camera lens, do you feel visible? If you have experienced a range of invisibility and now you are in the realm of visibility, what is an antidote to invisibility (in relation to politics and patriarchism?)

JL: Thank you so much, Vi. We were close in some ways, and so distant in others. He was living with me though, and he died at home in hospice. But the han, yes so much han, for sure. Probably in everything I write. There’s a point in the book where han is basically defined but not labeled as such. Also, your question about visibility is so important right, and so complex. As an Asian woman, how I’m perceived isn’t always up to me, but it affects how I’m seen, treated, valued, read. There is a kind of hyper-visibility or pre-judgment that erases much of who I really am, which isn’t as easy as just being invisible, and my own awareness or fears about how I’m perceived changes the way I operate in certain spaces. This is something I’m constantly struggling with, not being so attached to my identity or having to be seen in a certain way, letting go of aspects that I can’t control, and to try and just participate in more genuine encounters.


VKN: What is an example of a genuine encounter for you, Janice?

JL: Well, today I had a long and prolonged moment of eye contact with a squirrel who was eating the cucumbers in my garden.


VKN: That is so beautiful!  In two days, your book enters the world! How will you celebrate its birth? I don’t want to hurt your other books’ feelings, but is Imagine A Death—is it a favorite of yours?

JL: It’s definitely the book that feels like it required all of my other books to write. So maybe not “favorite,” but for me personally, it does feel like the most significant. On Wednesday, I hope to eat something delicious (I don’t know what yet), have some kind of small ceremony around gratitude, abundance, and letting go, and will probably walk to the 7-11 to buy some scratchers!


VKN: One of my favorite Korean idioms is this idiom:  눈코 없다 (nun-ko tteul seh eupt-da)—“I don’t have time to open my eyes and nose.” What don’t you have time for? And, do you have a favorite Korean mantra/phrase/axiom? If you were to invent a Korean idiom, what would you invent? Also, this is non-sequitur, but one of my favorite long sentences of yours is: “and also she had come to see the sentence itself as a colonialist structure, and thought that perhaps these long sentences might be something she could give the reader, something they didn’t need but would receive anyways, like a gift, like listening, or something like it, and even in all of that gesturing towards a productive contemplation that might finally lead away from the past, she wondered if it was too late for her, if in fact because of everything she had already done, everyone she had already hurt, was it perhaps too late for us all?”

JL: Ha! That is a good one! I love the curtness of that idiom, how relevant it is, but it also reminds me of how we don’t have time for each other, for ourselves. I want to have more time for everything, especially for opening my eyes and nose. A phrase that’s always fascinated me because of how ridiculous it sounds is 파이팅! (pronounced “Pa-i-ting!”) which is derived from the English word “Fighting!” It’s like a cheer or term to encourage people, and the strange grammatical incongruence is so funny to me. A new one I just learned about yesterday thanks to @fluentkorean’s Instagram is this: 방귀가 잦으면 똥이 나온다  / “If farting becomes frequent, then the need to poop is imminent.” 

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In real life, the girl on the toilet is named KAY. Another girl, Vada, walks in and silently holds a gun to Kay’s head. Without making any demands. She turns to Kay and automatically offers one key to her. Vada takes a look at the key and contemplates whether to kill her or not. Vada pulls the trigger and Kay drops to the ground. She turns to the bathroom door and realizes that there is a key already in the lock. Vada walks towards the bar after exiting the bathroom. And, turns to the bartender and says, “My sex drive is an amphibian. It can go a very long time on water. Or stroll leisurely on land. I wish you could see the radiation beneath your eyelids.” The bartender turns to her and says, “Campari soda isn’t an amphibian, but it will make you drunk enough to feel like you are floating down the Mississippi.” 

Vada twirls her fingers in her air and says, “Two of those please.”

The bartender responds, “I am sorry we ran out of Campari.”

“Why did you suggest it then?”

“Because Campari and amphibian share so many vowels and consonants and I wouldn’t want to deprive you of such linguistic liquor.”  

“You don’t speak like a bartender.’

“What do I speak like?”

“Like an English teacher.”


“What is it then?”

“I play scrabble competitively.”

“For money?”

“For the education of my ego.”

“Tell me: would you prefer a key or a bullet?”


“But if you had to choose.”

“A bullet.”


“Truman Capote wrote a book called In Cold Blood. An amphibian is a cold-blooded, ectothermic vertebrate. A bullet is a cold-blooded metal. Do you think if I make you a Bloody Mary – it would be cold-blooded enough?”

“May I have a highball?”

“That is how it ought to be served. However, we just ran out of tomato juice and dill pickle spear.” 

“Are you playing with me?”

“One coming right up.”

In real life, the bartender is a bullfighter. He looks like Manolete. His face takes the shape of a thin pentagon. And, his chest hair grows massively, spilling over his clean white shirt and his bow tie, and it extends into the wall like English ivies, invading and gatecrashing into the brick walls and scaling up the old apartment complexes near the bar above the Greek restaurant. He was a bullfighter by day and a scrabble player in the afternoon and in the evening, he bartends. 

“Your chest hair is a health hazard.”

“A fire hazard.”

“Has it killed anyone?”

“You mean has it strangled cats, dogs, and homeless folks?”

“I don’t mean it like that.”

“It just clogs up toilet bowls. It snakes into the bottom of the sewage system and whenever I stroll home, I drag home a city worth of tampons and wedding rings. I look like an eschatological version of a Christmas tree.”

“Does your chest hair get in the way of your—”

“You mean—bullfighting.”

“You’re a bullfighter too?”

“Yes, it makes me more of a complex beast. I get full respect from the bull.”

“Doesn’t it get in the way of your speed?”

“My chest hair?”

“What else?”

“It doesn’t. It makes me focus more. This jungle here.” The bartender waves his fingers agilely across his chest and continues, “My footwork must be flawless. It has made me more of a nimble, lithe, dexterous being. Because I always had to compensate for my chest hair—I had to be always on top of my game.”

“It seems like a very tiring life.”

“Hardly, I am clever, you see.”


“My infraclavicular virtue makes me so much smarter than men who don’t have any hair. I make better decisions. It’s easier for me to win scrabble games. And, postmenopausal species are so much more attracted to me – especially when I wear a V-neck sweater. And, I could tell that you just killed someone in the bathroom with a bullet.”

“How did you know? You could see through walls?”

“My chest hair has been wet, not like a water wet – which is when the toilet bowl overflows, but wet as in thick – like blood is thicker than water thick – and so I knew the edges of my hair has been feeding secrets about you back to me. You see, I am clever. And, I wouldn’t be clever without the extraordinary circumference of my chest hair. A virtue! Now, the cops will be arriving soon because my chest hair just dialed the police station from meters away using my cellphone. So, while we wait for them to arrive, may I make you a Campari soda?”

“I thought you ran out?”

“My chest hair, again, just strolled to a liquor store a few blocks from here and purchased a couple of bottles for me.”

“It even paid for it using your credit card?”

“How did you know?”

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DYLAN KRIEGER in conversation with VI KHI NAO

VI KHI NAO: Your bios over the years read like a poem: “Dylan Krieger is a transistor radio, a poet, a performer, a repository of high hopes from hell, a pile of false eyelashes growing algae in South Louisiana, an automatic meaning generator writing the apocalypse in real time, a divining rod of ungodly proportions.” Where and when in your life are you not a poet?DYLAN KRIEGER: Over the course of my life, poetry has slowly permeated more and more of my speech, my encounters, my rituals. There are fewer and fewer places where I am not a poet, places poetry doesn’t touch. I increasingly communicate in poems to the people closest to me. I used to think editing required a different mindset than writing, but I’m not so sure now. My inner editor is pretty wild sometimes, and I often make myself write when I’m not feeling particularly “inspired,” so my experience doesn’t always fit the stereotype of cautious editor vs. reckless inspiration. It’s difficult to draw a hard line. I have trouble telling poetry, “No, you can’t access this part of me.” I have very few boundaries with poetry.VKN: Why is that? Why do you have few boundaries?DK: I feel that, if I were to give poetry a hard boundary, I might be limiting myself as an artist. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t topics I just find dull or unappealing to write about, but when it comes to exposing my life to poetry (and vice versa) in new wayswhen it feels scary, like exposureI find it helps me grow creatively and try new things I otherwise wouldn’t have.VKN: What is dull and unappealing to you?DK: I usually find descriptions of physical places boring, though they’re so obligatory in novels. I also find cliches boring, but I often try to work with them anyway, to change them slightly and make them new.VKN: What is your favorite cliché? Or bad pick up lines?DK: It’s hard to pick just one, but I think my favorites are the ones we accept as normal in the day-to-day, but when we look more closely, they’re so much stranger than we realized. When I wrote my first book, Giving Godhead (Delete, 2017), I was obsessed with challenging Christian cliches I found disturbing but also sort of kinky, like being “used” by God, asking him to “come into” you, etc. I wanted to play up the creep factor by taking them out of the touchy-feely sermon setting and altering the spelling of words like “come” so I could showcase these phrases as I’ve come to know them: an extremely suspect tool of psychological “seduction.”VKN: So would you say that making them new—clichés that is—say a full pitcher of water sits next to an empty glass of water and turns its nose and says to the glass, “where have you been all my life?”—Is that how you make them new? Or do you have something else in mind? When you say “make them new”?DK: In Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse, for example, there’s this jokey title, “what doesn’t kill you...will eventually.” It’s sort of a deflation of the hopeful cliche a reader might anticipate from hearing the original phrase before. And it usually gets a laugh at readings, but it’s also very sad, almost defeatist. I think Soft-Focus rides that line between comedy and tragedy, perhaps a little more vulnerably than my other books.VKN: In your Kenyon Review interview, you declared that The Mother Wart is “by far the most autobiographical book” you’ve ever released. Is Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse now the most autobiographical? Why is it more vulnerable?DK: The Mother Wart and Soft-Focus do both have deeply personal (autobiographical) themes. In The Mother Wart, I went “edgy” by sharing those personal experiences through the framing of the controversial Church of Euthanasia. But with Soft-Focus, I felt so internally exposed that my primary concern was avoiding a tone of solipsistic wallowing in self-pity about chronic pain. I wanted to pay attention to relationships, not only because the interpersonal challenges of being in pain all the time can be heartbreaking, but also because staying by someone’s side and honoring their needs is often all we can do for their suffering. Pain is naturally isolating, so I strive not to forget “those who take care.” VKN: A lot of your titles from this collection exist as two word combos: “nymphone home,” “blushing biopsies,” “basal burn,” “dylan downer,” “meat/maker,” “dentist’s diagnosis,” “sisyphean surgery,” “tension tending.” Did you also want the words not to feel isolated? To see their “coupling” through? Was it done intentionally—like a gym buddy, but for words and language? Do words help each other through the pain of existence?DK: I really like that interpretation; I find two-word or longer titles’ dynamism and capacity for “play” more interesting than one-word titles. On the other hand, I heard a writer once point out that if a title is longer than two words, it’s usually reduced or shortened to two words in common speech. I’ve found that to be true with my own book titles, so two words is a sweet spot. But lately I’ve been experimenting with really rambling, long lines you wouldn’t expect to see as a title. I get restless and can’t help but mix and match the loneliest words to see what they do to each other in close quarters.VKN: Could you give us an example of such rambling?DK: I just revisited one such poem called “autopsy reveals lasting marriages mostly composed of sharp metal in a theoretical vacuum.” The longer form opens up possibilities for parodying news headlines and other kinds of writing, but also for setting the tone for the rest of the poem. It’s a bolder kind of trumpeting for what’s to come than most titles, which I like. VKN: I accidentally misread your poem’s title as “autopsy reveals lasting marriages mostly composed of sharp objects in a thoracic vacuum.”DK: I think that also works! It could almost be a prompt: “Write what you think lasting marriages are composed of.” Anyone could give it a try. VKN: Going back to The Mother Wart, that book is about taking deliberate steps not to give birth. But with six books released into the world within three or four years, you are chronically gravid with books and language. To reference Russo and the de-motherhood in its repulsion and attraction, when you give birth to books, do those philosophical and political impulses also enact such binary for you? Or is it different?DK: I imagine physical birth as a culmination of anticipated intimacy, but sometimes releasing a book doesn’t feel that way (and I assume physically giving birth sometimes doesn’t either). I often feel very distanced from the poems in a book by the time it comes out, like looking at old pictures, a different version of myself, with all the varying degrees of affection and embarrassment. So the binary of repulsion and attraction is there, but there’s a sense of remoteness from the original environment and from the feelings that originally gave rise to the work. VKN: Which child is your favorite of your five children (if you had to be a partial mother)? DK: I’m a fickle mother. My youngest is always my favorite. I’m constantly trying to overcome that layer of distance (from writing to publication) by unleashing new work into the world while I’m still saturated in it. I think that’s why I send poems to my closest friends now, sometimes right after writing them. VKN: Is that what you are currently working on? Or are you referring to Soft-Focus?DK: Of my first five books, Metamortuary would be my favorite. But I think Soft-Focus is more focused (ha), and it has less of that “old photo” distance, since I wrote it more recently. The title of Soft-Focus, like the poem you mentioned (“blushing biopsies”), is something of an oxymoron, or at least an unexpected pairingone element being pretty and dreamy and the other being brutal. I’m very excited about this book, but I am even more excited about my works in progress, which is encouraging—hopefully I’m still improving. VKN: Is that the child that is divided into four parts?DK: Yes, Metamortuary and The Mother Wart are each divided into four parts. I wrote them back when I was neatly outlining manuscripts before starting them. I would write all the titles before writing a single poem, almost like a list of prompts that I could return to if I ever got stuck. It really helped me at the time, but I’ve used that strategy less and less since writing Soft-Focus.VKN: Why are you using that strategy less and less? Speaking of pairing, since your work is both mythological and biblical, which two biblical figures do you think should date each other? And why?DK: Hmm, wow. I love this question. I’m gonna go real satanic and say Eve and the snake should date. Adam seems boring. Adam gets friend zoned. VKN: He is boring? What is your definition of boring? And, why Eve and the snake? Aren’t they already dating?DK: I thought their relationship was never official like that, but maybe that’s open to interpretation. I just think Satan gets a bad rap in the Bible and I’d like to see him get laid in paradise. Sounds like a good plot twist.VKN: What is sexual pleasure for a snake? Giving Godhead is pleasure for god, but what is the equivalent for a snake? DK: I think that’s what is so enthralling about religious texts. God is sort of this amorphous cloud of power, but he also appears as a man. There are angels that are just wheels of eyes, and then angels that look like men. Sometimes Satan is a snake, but maybe he’d be an angel of light in bed. One can dream. Ha. VKN: Of course. Your work does not shy away from sex, from the profane, from the grotesque, from the sacred. What is sacred for you, Dylan? Something that has not been tarnished by fundamentalist Christianity?DK: For a long timewhen I wrote Giving Godhead, for exampleI would have said I didn’t hold anything sacred. And I still believe it’s good for our sanity to question what we hold sacred and whether it’s actually helping us or anyone else. But now, I can look back and say that a lot of my anger toward religion was rooted in the fact that it wasn’t holding the same things sacred as I do. It treated relationships and even people as expendable, if they didn’t believe or conform to its behavioral standards. So, now I’ll admit it: I do hold non-hierarchical, mutually respectful, intimate bonds sacred, and I think major religions often undermine those relationships to uphold their hierarchies. VKN: When I read up on you for this interview, I found a Dylan Krieger who plays men’s basketball as a forward.DK: Did you see the Quarter Life stuff? It’s this short-lived TV show where the main character was a writer named Dylan Krieger. I never saw it, but reading about it made me feel...watched.VKN: I haven’t seen it, but I am glad you are the main character in Quarter Life, that your name could live elsewhere. I think poets who write poetry and play basketball can be an exciting, contagious theme (Natalie Diaz). Are you athletic at all? Do you play any sports? I have never met you in person before, but based on your poetry and your poetry readings, I think you would make an excellent hockey player! Puck and punk!  DK: I don’t think anyone in my life would assume I was athletic, but I actually did love to play softball and soccer as a kid. I had fewer opportunities to play organized sports because I was home-schooled, but I had a pretty steady “backyard baseball” ritual with my dadat least until I got old enough to pick his brain about philosophy and music history instead. If I had been raised even 50 miles north of South Bend, I would have been in Michiganclose enough to Canada that hockey probably would have been a part of my childhood.VKN: Your work deals with the mother theme a lot, and your father theme might be God, but have you thought about devoting an entire collection to the father theme? What is your relationship with your father like? Based on some of the interviews I read, I was under the impression that your parents don’t read your work. Would you ever write a collection just for them, with your parents being your ideal readers?DK: I actually started writing a novel last year that I wound up abandoning for a poetry project once the pandemic hit. So far, the novel is basically a mix of auto-fiction and speculative fiction, and my dad and I are the main characters. Since it’s prose, I think there’s a better chance he’d read it and enjoy it. In many ways, I’m thankful that they usually don’t read my poetry, because it gives me more room to talk about my childhood without it feeling like a confrontation or personal attack. VKN: I can understand thatthe desire for freedom and anonymity from parents. Why did you abandon the project? Is the novel form too verbose? If your work had to be censored, which institution or structure would you desire that censorship from?DK: My problem with the novel form is the planning it requires, paired with my limited attention span. Poems are usually the perfect length and intensity to grab and hold my attention. It’s difficult to sustain that intensity for an entire novel, and I’m not sure if you’d want to, but I always end up sounding like a poet anyway, even when I write prose. When it comes to censorship, we actually tried to get some negative press for The Mother Wart by emailing major televangelists, warning them that the book was pro-abortion satanist trash that they should condemn on their programs. We were aiming for getting that “(no such thing as) bad press.” I wouldn’t mind being censored or condemned by the/a church. But I’m just one little poet, and they’re age-old institutions, so I don’t think I am considered a threat. :)VKN: I am sorry you haven’t been censored properly! It would have been an amazing publicity stunt. You have been published by a variety of presses (never one twice). How do you find homes for your work? And how did you find 11:11 for Soft-Focus?DK: It’s really been different every time. With some of my presses, I had gotten an introduction and an invitation to submit. With others, like Delete and 11:11, it was pretty much a cold submission. But with 11:11, I do remember Andrew reaching out to me over social media with very heartfelt condolences when one of my friends died, and I remember thinking, “This press seems like good people.” They also make impressively detail-oriented, visually striking art. But the “good people” part is more and more important to me these days. I want to work with people I trust who also share my vision.VKN: Andrew is very lovely and awesome, isn’t he? I love his intensity. Why is the “good people” part more and more important to you these days?DK: It only takes one bad experience with publishing to make you think of it differently. When I was younger, I was so desperate to get my work out there, I truly would have signed a contract with anyone. It’s good to become more selective than thatto really think about what you want to say and how you want your work to look and exist in the world. Finding a press you can trust is so instrumental to that process, because it’s a collaborationand a far more involved one than just passing a notebook back and forth. I rely on other creative people so much to bring my poems to life, and I try to stay very aware of how much trust is involved in that kind of collaboration.VKN: That is wise, Dylan. I really love the cover and table of contents in Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse. (I wish more tables of contents were this exciting!) I know Mike Corrao, 11:11’s in-house designer, designed the book. Can you talk about the design component of it, and is there a favorite poem of yours from this collection? One that you return to again and again for comfort or peace of mind or momentum of creativity? DK: Thank you about the design! I love what Mike did, tooespecially with the table of contents. The overall medical theme was his creation, but I selected the jaw bone as the cover image, since that’s the nexus of my pain condition, and I thought it was a haunting image all by itself like that, centered and enshrined. As far as a favorite poem goes, I like returning to “love is wanting to die together” and “spectrum sensitive.” They’re both poems with a glimmer of hope, whether that hope resides in finding the ultimate romance or simply feeling sensory pleasure so intense it might balance out the pain. I’m glad this kind of nuance made it into the book, alongside and in contrast to the sense of defeat pain brings. VKN: So, for the readersif they were to chew on something while reading your jaw book, what should they eat? I get the impression that you love breakfast/diner food, but what would be a good meal to go along with your book? As they are consuming your work that deals with chronic pain, what is something they could chronically consume as well—to be in conversation with you and your poetry?DK: Maybe this is too literal an interpretation, but I’ve gotten a lot of responses to the poems like, “Wow, I have TMJ, too,” so if you’re one of those people, go with a softer breakfast food like shrimp and grits. I think bruxism and TMJ symptoms are more common than we realize; I just happen to have a very bad case. My official diagnosis is “anterior jaw dislocation with reduction.” I can actually swing my jaw out of joint, and I have nerve damage in my scalp and extremities that makes touch unpleasant sometimes, but I luckily don’t have limited mobility (yet). The condition can be aggravated by tough foods like crusty breads, though, so stay away from thoseif you share these issues, that is.VKN: Do you edit your work heavily, Dylan? DK: I self-edit pretty heavily, but I don’t have a trusty sidekick editor like some of my writer friends have. Maybe that’s a level of trust I haven’t reached yet.VKN: Would you like one? If there is someone from history that you could always have access to, editing-wise, whom would you choose? DK: If we’re going for a dead poet, I might say Mina Loy. She would give me the weird word, the unexpected word. It would lift me out of predictability—that’s how I imagine the power of her influence. VKN: You can accidentally write limericks or metered poems. Are their other accidental talents of yours we should know about?DK: It’s true; I think I have an almost compulsive proclivity for ending poems in song. Even if they’re not otherwise in meter, something tells me to end that way. I’m not sure if my other talents are as unconscious/accidental, but I did grow up singing, harmonizing, and sight-reading music a lot. As a friend once said, a “musical demon” lives inside me and comes out in my poems to make music out of words. VKN: Do you think it’s a result of being home-schooled and raised by musical parents?DK: Yes, I’m sure I would have still loved music even if my life had been different, but the way it turned out, music became a sort of bonding ritual. Sometimes we fought over it (I was always too loud and my sister was always flat, according to my mom) but music made intuitive sense to me, more than math or science or history or even language at that point. Making language into music eventually seemed like the natural evolution of that intuition. VKN: I want to end this interview by asking about this poem: “love is wanting to die together.” Where and when did you write it? Where were you in life? What provoked it? And, what do you think about love poems? Should we all become “proverbial flowers” to be pressed by two pages of a book? I love how its opening“eyelash to eyelash”evokes intimacy before “unembarrassed” reverberates it.DK: I was actually extremely single when I wrote this book—which might be surprising, given the number of love poems in it. Chronic pain is one of many particular predicaments that can make us feel “hard to love,” so the prospect of deep personal or romantic intimacy is related to my self-perception as a “spoonie.” In the context of chronic pain or illness, love might look more like a physical therapy session than like an epic romantic adventure. I’ve always thought choosing a partner is kind of like choosing a family memberit’s that day-to-day, mundane level of closenessand there’s something so bittersweet about the notion that the best possible ending is dying together. Love poems might seem overdone historically, but it’s just one of those topics, like death, like sickness, like pain. It never goes out of style, because it still haunts us.

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