Kenji C. Liu (劉謙司) is author of Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, 2019), and Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize. His poetry can be found, among other places, in American Poetry Review, Anomaly, The Feminist Wire, Gulf Coast, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, several anthologies, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). A Kundiman fellow and an alumnus of VONA/Voices, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Angeles.
Christina Orlando: The first thing I was struck by when reading through this collection was how visual it is. There is a lot of playing with form—we’ve got poems told in footnotes, with music, in different fonts, all sitting alongside each other. In this way, the book itself becomes sort of a whole made up of parts, a Frankenstein, a monster. Given your design background, is the visual aspect something that is present when a poem is being written? What is your process for deciding how a poem should look on the page?
Kenji C. Liu: The layering of music, footnotes, and typefaces was an attempt to more fully embody the Frankenstein process. The Frankenstein monster—who has been a kind of mascot for this collection (in addition to Godzilla)—was radical taxidermy, a hand-built man, and later on a hand-built woman. Dr. Frankenstein dug up dead bodies and pieced together a new being. With that as methodological inspiration, this collection definitely engaged multiple modalities.
At first I created the work in this collection solely with words, but then I realized I shouldn’t limit my palette. I have a background in music and visual art, so it made sense to draw on these languages and archives. My first attempt at combining the visual and textual was in my second chapbook, Craters: A Field Guide. Monsters I Have Been is another attempt. The visual components were add-ons during revision, attempts to layer additional meaning. So in that sense, it’s not that different from the normal revision process.
To me, any poem is also a visual work, even if the writer doesn’t think of it that way. The form, typeface, and how it sits on the page can convey a lot, though the writer can’t always control this in publication. I love all the publishing spaces that online literary journals and independent presses have created for writers, but I do miss finely tuned typography and layout.
As a writer with a graphic design background, I tend to use typography or visual elements to convey or enhance meaning, but I am cautious about how visual language might interfere with the meaning of the text. This is a conservative approach. There are plenty of poets who use much more disruptive visual strategies, like Doug Kearney. But for now, I still want the reader to be able to experience the book primarily through the words as they are in a conventional sense, with some exceptions.
CO: I want to talk about you Frankenpos and their source material. There are several in this collection, with text taken from screenplays, magazine articles, Presidential Executive Orders, quotes from writers like Octavia Butler and Confucius, Wikipedia entries, and many other sources. When you set to work stitching a poem together, how do you make decisions about what to pull from? Which comes first, the source material or the concept for a poem? How do the two inform each other?
KCL: You could say I started with a concept for most of the book—masculinities—and picked source texts accordingly. Obviously, my interpretation of the concept is based on my particular concerns and commitments. But it wasn’t that hard to find appropriate texts, given that there are always so many extremely public examples of problematic masculinity in the news.
Many times, I started with a particular source text and looked for another with the best potential to complexify meaning. This is both at the meta-level of how two different aesthetic-political discourses might offer each other a creative tension, and at the level of how the specific vocabularies contained in each might create strange and interesting combinations.
For example, I knew that combining POTUS45’s inauguration speech with Emperor Palpatine’s speech to the Galactic Senate would turn into something juicy (and creepy). In the final poem, it’s mostly impossible to say which words come from which sources. That fact in itself is at once amusing and terrifying.
Sometimes the texts I chose just did not gel together, so I switched one out or added a third. It was like rolling dice, though over time I got a better sense of what might work best.
I wanted to look at every cultural artifact as a potential textual archive and have them haunt each other. Achille Mbembe has said that, “the destroyed archive haunts the state in the form of a spectre.” I did not really start with destroyed archives, but I did in one sense destroy archives by smashing them together to see what would happen. The previous texts haunt each other through Frankenpo, something I would love to explore more some day in the form of a visual installation.
CO: There are a few poems in the collection, particularly “teaching men to be emotionally honest,” “she’s people! 10 apologies,” and “Ritual against toxic masculinity” that deal with the performance of masculinity and its toxicity. This is a national conversation and your choice to use text from celebrity apologies ties your work into that conversation. I would venture to say that the act of writing poetry subverts toxic masculinity, as it encourages emotion and openness. How would you say your work engages with the conversation surrounding men’s behavior?
KCL: I think there is still also poetry that limits emotional expression to things like the unquestioned glorification of violence, objectification of women, reactionary patriotism, and unacknowledged white supremacy. Luckily this isn’t the majority.
I tried to portray toxic masculinity as both a performance and a material act with real consequences. At the gym, supermarket, and on public transportation, I see people performing masculinity in almost carnivalesque ways, though I imagine it reads as normal to most others. But conventional masculinity has many negative consequences, ranging from internalized self-hatred, everyday microaggressions, structural inequities, and many forms of violence.
In this collection, I tried to move conventional masculinity away from being private and normalized towards public and abnormal. To isolate something taken for granted and showing its internal contradictions—using its own words, from its own texts—through surreal juxtaposition and exaggeration, is great fun. In this way, I am interested in loosening our collective investment in conventional masculinities.
With the celebrity apologies, it was surprising how easily the poem came together after mixing the source texts. It was almost as if ten non-apologies were floating in the air like Plato’s ideal forms just waiting to be picked.
My work engages the conversation around men’s behavior by pointing out existing discourses and their consequences, by implicating patriarchy with its/our own words. Yes, I draw on specific examples of behavior, but what are the larger conversations that justify and reward that behavior? In this sense, the ten apologies are not so much about the celebrities, but about a set of existing discourses we can pull from to excuse ourselves and others. Excuses that will more or less allow us to escape most consequences.
CO: How does the Frankenpo format play into this conversation, and why was it important to use this form to make the statement you wanted to make?
KCL: Frankenpo has been the perfect way for me to create work where the methodology and the final result are equally meaningful. I find it crucial that the Frankenstein monster was an assumedly heterosexual man built by a man in the name of science. The result is toxic, sad, predictable, and clearly metaphorical. As a society, we are always making more and more men, in the name of science, nation, capitalism, dominance, heterosexuality, etc. I’d rather make fewer men and more ethical ways of being. The Frankenpo method and its results are themselves my statement.
CO: I also want to talk about the poem “Hello, Stranger,” which was written after Moonlight, a film that very much centers around masculinity, particularly for black men, and the juxtaposition of queerness and male tenderness against a world that demands otherwise. How do you approach writing about queerness and queer relationships alongside the conversation about toxic masculinity, and what was it about Moonlight in particular that struck you?
KCL: Moonlight is my favorite film for many reasons, including that juxtaposition you name. Hetero-patriarchy can prevent many male-identified people from expressing tenderness and other feelings. But what struck me about Moonlight was that the two main characters actually did not seem to hate their own queerness. It was actually the larger world demanding that their love be restrained within heteronormative convention. So while they were bound by the rules of heteronormative society, which rewarded them for displaying elements of toxic masculinity, as individuals they didn’t hate themselves or each other. It was this crucial point I was trying to explore in the poem, and am interested in exploring further.
CO: How do we as a culture have conversations about loving men, while still being critical of masculinity and gender expectations? How does the act of writing help facilitate that conversation, or help us understand the variations of male/male interactions?
KCL: I don’t know how, except to say that many men, including me, are stuck in the trap of masculinity too. I try to undermine it by being self-reflective, reading extremely widely, and trying to maintain a sense of accountability. I can point out the issues, challenges, contradictions, and impacts through my writing.
One issue raised by an early reader of the manuscript was that there were few women in the book. I thought this through very seriously and consulted others for their perspectives. The way I finally addressed the issue was to more directly acknowledge the importance of feminist and queer thought to my being able to write this book at all. I also made sure some of the queer and gender-queer experiences that have shaped me were included. By writing this way, I am attempting to be simultaneously accountable, critical, and compassionate.
CO: We’re now at a point in our culture where we’re starting to see more poets work in their first languages, or in other languages alongside English—not expressly as a translation but as a functioning part of the poem. Japanese is scattered throughout this collection, interwoven with English. How do you make decisions about when to use Japanese, when to translate, or how to translate? How do you think these two very different languages play off each other and form a conversation within a poem? How do the two cultures form a conversation?
KCL: I try not to distinguish too much between languages when I write. But when editing or revising, I think more about the strategic use of Japanese. Some things can only be conveyed in Japanese. I also find that my English is often influenced by Japanese grammar. This gives me a wide poetic palette, which I enjoy.
Most of my audience doesn’t read Japanese, but this doesn’t matter to me. I’m not that interested in translating the Japanese parts most of the time. I live a multilingual life, and much of the world is multilingual. In the notes, I might explain what I’m doing, but that’s not translation or even interpretation.
They are different languages, but they aren’t separate because I’ve been immersed in both my whole life. For me, they’re a combined superpower. But I do also know that when used together in a poem, they are forming a relationship that conveys a third meaning, even if it’s just the fact of being unknowable. For the English-only reader, I prefer that they face the challenge of uncertainty, rather than the easy satisfaction or pretence of understanding.
CO: There are a few series of poems in this collection, including “Ultraman’s lament,” “Dear I Ching,” “Portrait of grandfather,” and “What I like about you.” When you’re putting together a collection, how do you decide where those sit amongst standalone poems? How does the progression of these series inform the collection as a whole?
KCL: These series came about in different ways, so it’s hard to address this generally. Each series is an exploration of different ideas, but they center around masculinities in some way. I think of their placement across the collection as tent poles that the book hangs on, and hopefully gives some sense of movement and return.