Fashioning a Mirror of Her Own: A Conversation with Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn is the author of 10 books of poems, including her most recent, Foreign Bodies (W.W. Norton, 2020). As part of her service to the CUNY community, she initiated a Chapbook Festival that became an annual event co-sponsored by major literary organizations. Since then, she has added chapbooks to her publication list, authoring or collaborating on nine different titles. Hahn has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship, PEN/Voelcker Award, Shelley Memorial Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the N.Y. Foundation for the Arts. She has taught in graduate programs at the University of Houston and New York University, and is a distinguished professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Queens College, The City University of New York. From 2016-2019, Hahn was president of the Board of Governors, Poetry Society of America


Lisa Higgs: Your new collection, Foreign Bodies, places object and body in close conversation with each other. “Object Lessons,” the second poem of Foreign Bodies, has as its locus swallowed objects that Dr. Chevalier Quixote Jackson has recovered surgically and collected. “The Ashes” is a fantastic poem that—in searching for your mother’s ashes in the junkyard of your father’s home—includes the heartbreaking lines, “The rain pours then stops for sun? If / he lost Mother’s ashes what more could I stand?” Later in the collection, “The Cryptic Chamber” and “She Sells Sea Shells” view fossilization and the act of collecting the past from multiple vantage points. What drew you to this exploration of things we hold onto both physically and mentally?

Kimiko Hahn: Consciously or not, I think most contemporary writers are under William Carlos Williams’ spell, “No idea but in things.” And, by extension, that instruction has been reduced to “show, don’t tell.” Either way, the image, the thing, is placed in the foreground. So that is one facet. And of course, imagists like Williams were informed by the haiku. And Japanese aesthetics is another facet of my background. Also, I grew up in a family of visual artists, so seeing and being aware of objects was part of my family culture. My father was a public school art teacher, and my sister and I were literally instructed (at home and in his classroom) to notice, say, a mansard roof. To differentiate between Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian capitals. He was also a fine artist and not only made art until his final days but also collected things. His house contained enormously valuable art hidden among the debris. So, the long answer is: I was surrounded by objects, literally as well as in my poetics. They had a hold on me. 

The shorter answer? In reading Emily Dickinson, I see how a shamaness makes something like Quartz or a loaded gun come alive. I want to learn how to do that. “The Ashes” is an apprenticeship poem. I could not have come up with “circumspect mothballs” otherwise. I am in her debt.

LH: The relationship between mother and daughter has played a central role in your other work, and your interest in and expressions about the body as a means to enter into this complex relationship is striking. In Foreign Bodies, the lost father is a key figure, while the mother appears more often as an object, as ash. This thematic shift seems a new expression of this important relationship. Do you also sense that your approach to mother-daughter-body has changed over the course of your 10 collections, and if yes, how?

KH: After my mother’s death and the publication of The Unbearable Heart, a poet friend commented that in all my previous collections I seemed to be searching for my mother and suddenly she was literally gone. The poems are elegies. His comment was true and continued to be true. The focus shifted as I became a mother (and also grew to realize more of my own issues) and, now, a grandmother. I think themes remain constant, but if we’re lucky and committed to exploring, we can progress (shift—to use your word) from being pushed into a pit (I’m referring to Dr. Jackson) to becoming a laryngologist who extracted things from passageways. In my experience, she was always missing and that missing has taken different forms. My relationship to that gone-ness has shifted. 

Stated another way, here’s an epigraph I used from Louise Glück’s poem “Nostos”: “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” 

LH: “The Ashes” from Foreign Bodies represents a significant formal work. Tanka-like stanzas move from five lines into six, with the final stanza pulling lines from earlier pieces, reminiscent of a sonnet crown or a sestina’s envoy, to create an entirely new style. I would love to hear how you approached the drafting of this poem. What choices did you make intentionally in this poem to hold the sections together? What, if anything, grew from the form organically?

KH: This poem was a breakthrough for me. I was mucking around, not hitting any electricity, any intensity of feeling. I thought to give myself writing assignments to see what would happen (this is how I mostly work) and remembered that my editor Jill Bialosky very much liked the little sequence “Charming Lines” from a previous collection, The Artist’s Daughter. For this sequence, I wrote seven (magic number!) sections, each one was eight lines and had to contain the line “As she twirls around her skirt swirls up” (an innocent and sassy move) in a different position. Each one had to refer to a fairy tale (“The hot smell as if grandmother left the iron on” refers to the smell of blood when Little Red Riding Hood enters her grandmother’s home). Each one had to have a seemingly personal image as well (“The mother sews doll dresses from scraps”). In each, seven of the eight lines end-stopped. An involved and potentially rigid set of requirements, but the poem ended up giving me something. 

When I returned to some of those requirements for what would become “Ashes,” I brought more of an awareness of the tanka’s pivotal moment. Also—as I noted earlier—I’d learned from Dickinson to try a word that would animate. It wasn’t until a number of drafts in that I decided I needed a formal closure and looked to the sonnet crown. The repetition and deviation gave the whole a measure of resolution. 

LH: In Foreign Bodies, you also have five brief “charms” poems that are rhymed quatrains. Each offers an object to save and a method of saving. The first, subtitled “Mindful,” reminds readers to not take live sand dollars from the sea; the second, “Sympathy,” asks the reader to aid overturned horseshoe crabs. “Trustfulness” suggests that readers need to be sure not to “fossilize your heart” with imprints from the past. The fourth, with two quatrains “Nip the Bud” and “Reprisal,” focuses on saving a relationship by pulling out Queen Anne’s Lace roots and placing nettles in a neighbor’s sheets. Finally, “Empathy” reminds readers to save dragonflies caught in spider’s webs. How do you see these brief poems playing with and against the larger themes in Foreign Bodies?

KH: If memory serves, I wanted to try writing very short, formal, magical pieces. By this time, in drawing together what would become the collection, I wanted to play with the power of an object. I think I wrote first and figured out “theme”—that is, the title—afterwards. I’m not sure I was as conscious about how they played out across the collection. Arrangement was, in part, a matter of pacing and emphasizing magic. As a kind of sidebar: in the Shinto religion, objects are alive. Even though I am not religious, animism has always made an impression on me. For this collection, that feeling makes sense. And I have to admit I hadn’t thought of objects that were “saved”—thank you for that insight.

LH: When I began reading chronologically through your multiple collections to prepare for this interview, I initially did notice the formality of your work. Perhaps it was your early use of zuihitsu—a Japanese diary-like form that eschews traditional “Western” poetic form as it expresses seemingly random thoughts that create an imagistic or emotional structure, if not a logical narrative one. But you are a formally playful poet, stretching the boundaries of the tanka in particular—but also the sonnet, the villanelle, and other classic forms—while creating forms unique to your collections. Forms that incorporate journal notes, lists, emails, erasures, conversations, found texts, and more. In what ways do you consider yourself a formal poet, if that term can stretch beyond adherence to confine and stricture?

KH: Although in my youth I was against formal poetry (like most of my peers), poems from one’s childhood have a way of living in the body. In Air Pocket, “Imagination” (thank you William Carlos Williams!) borrows from linked verse: I recycle a word with multiple meanings from the last line of one section to the subtitle of the next section. 

In later years, I became aware of how repetition plays out, how it holds things together, creates a threshold. I became enamored of Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure. I used some of what I learned to write zuihitsu—that is, the idea of an organizing theme, to compose and revise. I like the phrase “emotional structure”—thank you for that. Yes. That phrase is very much in keeping with Smith’s theory.

A formal poet? I seem to have landed on form after decades of so-called free or open verse. I could not write a sestina until recently and now I am taken by the challenges. Am I a “formal poet?” Sometimes. I am intrigued by how far a form allows me to go. 

LH: I don’t want to belabor writing process overmuch, but I am intrigued by any poet who can write long, multi-sectioned poems—something I find very difficult. Are the different sections written independently of each other? How do you decide what material should be included in the longer poem and what material does not fit the poem’s purpose? How do you manage to sustain an idea or thought over the days it might take to write a solid draft of one of your multi-sectioned poems?

KH: “The poem’s purpose”—I like that phrase. Some long poems start as projects, something to research (literally) or investigate. Then I need to figure out why I’m interested, beyond a fascinating idea. That is: what is the theme? Where is the poem going? (This is how I conduct graduate workshops, by the way.) I draft a lot, revise, add more, trim—and at varying points, create sections in part by looking at language and pacing. In a long poem, it’s helpful if the themes should be put into relief.  

LH: In the poem “Blunt Instrument” from Narrow Road to the Interior, you address confessional poetry by saying, “I’m not clear why this issue comes up since I’ve always assumed poetic license—so any ‘confession’ is bound to be fictive.” As you note from an introduction to Issa’s Oraga Haru by Nobuyuki Yuasa, Issa revised his work to “’[shape a] year so that it may more fitly reveal the truth of [Issa] as a man than any one year, historically considered, could possibly do’”—as did Bashō in his famous haibun. Is there something about poetry itself that lends readers to expect more “truth” than they would of a fiction writer using first person narration? Is the “I” of poetry in some ways a bind for poets, in the sense of how readers often make a direct link between the “I” and the poet herself?

KH: It can be a bind. As a starting point, it can be both a bind to overcome and/or a point of departure, of expression. How deep, how far, can we go to let go of our raw material? Craft can allow us to go further, to make repetition where in real life such repetition may not exist. If something is red in real life and needs to become a list of brown items—that’s fiction. It’s interesting that, not only do readers assume I am presenting facts, but that I do the same when I read a poem. I guess it’s an occupational hazard—for the occupation of reader as well as writer. 

LH: Poetic allusions or responses to other writers, scientists, artists are common in your work—from Japanese writers Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shōnagon, and Ono no Komachi to New York Times articles that provided triggers to poems in Toxic Flora and Brain Fever. Your new collection Foreign Bodies is no exception, with the long poems “Object Lessons” centered around Dr. Chevalier Quixote Jackson and “She Sells Seashells” focused on the life of fossil hunter Mary Anning. Similarly, “Alloy” is an apostrophe for artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. I imagine you do a lot of research and reading as you initially draft poems, but perhaps some of the material enters into the poems through revision. Could you speak about this aspect of your poetic process—and how it has or has not changed throughout your career?

KH: In general, I start with language—for example the diction that etymology offers—then move outward into details of, say, how a dragonfly’s wingspan was once six feet. Electricity is in the language. (This is true of children’s stories as much as poetry.) Early long poems, like those prompted by an obsession with The Tale of Genji, came from being drawn to a subject as well as thematic areas. With the latter, I actually read the pop-psych book Jealousy by Nancy Friday, then found my way to psychology (an area I never studied in college), Melanie Klein in particular. With Jackson, I was curious about him, his version of hoarding. With Noguchi, I was interested in him as an artist and mixed-race American. I read several books on him. I flounder a lot. And dog-paddle.   

LH: The complexity in each of your 10 collections, which comes from connections you have between Eastern and Western literary traditions and from the multifaceted allusions you employ, will provide academics a trove of topics that they can explore. For a more general poetry lover, do you have recommendations for what might be included in a “Kimiko Hahn Reader”? Obvious choices would be The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, and Narrow Road to the Interior. Are there less obvious choices—from classic to contemporary—that would provide a reader with new understanding of your work?

KH: It’s sad that I never learned Japanese well enough to read fluently. But fortunately, there are beautiful translations. I love Earl Miner’s Japanese Poetic Diaries and Japanese Court Poetry, Hiroaki Sato’s String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi, and anything by Yasunari Kawabata. Now that I think about it, maybe I am too involved in talking to other writers (an assignment given by Michael Burkard when I was an undergrad). Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Wright. And on. 

LH: Preparing for this interview was a lot like a treasure hunt, given how interwoven the poems come to be in each collection and how interwoven the collections seem to be to each other. In rereading Foreign Bodies, I noticed how attached your poems could be through the use of honkadori, or allusive variation, if I’m using the term correctly. For instance, “Sparkly Things” creates connections between magpies and your father’s “nesting” into the familial home after your mother’s death. The poem ends, “Also not like a magpie, / he doesn’t recognize himself in a mirror.” The next poem in the collection is “The Cryptic Chamber”—you are referring on one level to a nautilus shell you had received, but also to a safe deposit box, a curiosity cabinet, the universe, and of course, a crypt. Because “cryptic” is defined as “mysterious in meaning; puzzling; and ambiguous,” it also refers back to the father’s inability in “Sparkly Things” to understand what he sees in the mirror. And this is but one instance of your technique. “She Sells Sea Shells” ends with “a little girl can fashion a mirror of her own,” which leads right into the next poem, titled “Likeness: A Self-Portrait.” You discuss some aspects of this technique in your included essay, “Nitro: More on Japanese Poetics,” but I wonder if you could speak less about individual poems and more about how you go about organizing a poetry collection? How have you come to so successfully build allusive variation not only between each of your past books, but also between poems within one collection?

KH: I wish I could claim such a conscious decision-making process. Or perhaps it’s best to say that the process largely depends on intuitive choices. I am lucky to have friends read the collection when it’s nearly ready to send to my editor, and arrangement is one question that I ask. I do spread all the pages out on the floor, literally, and see what I have. Literally see where what comes up. 

On the other hand, I learned from Jill to look at a whole manuscript and see what might be redundant. I learned from Smith’s Poetic Closure to see what might be repeated across a whole collection. 

LH: In “Nitro: More on Japanese Poetics,” when talking about the use of juxtaposition, you wrote, “Over the decades, I may have relied a bit too much on recklessness as a strategy to yield unconscious material and, by end, to offer a mental and emotional closure.” I’m curious how you would define this recklessness. What, in your earlier work, seems reckless to you now with the passage of time? Or, what in your later work avoids that sense of recklessness?

KH: I did not have the benefit of mentors in an MFA program. I would say that Marilyn Chin, in effect, apprenticed herself to Donald Justice at Iowa. And also to the classical Chinese poets whose work she was translating. I feel I’ve had to figure things out using my undergrad workshops as foundational instruction (advanced workshops with Louise Glück, Marvin Bell, Charles Wright). There are moments when I look at early work and wish I could have given my younger self some revision advice. Specifically? I sometimes want to revise the opening of “The Hemisphere.” I might insert page breaks (or dingbats) in a zuihitsu like “Cuttings.” Recklessness was a vow to free verse and to what Dorthea Brande called “tapping the unconscious.” 

LH: Similarly, you wrote, “My wish is for the reader to shift from a moment of waking consciousness to a random realization and then to a question…My wish is for the reader to experience the odd shifts of awareness. My hope is that the experience is moving.” I’m taking this out of the context of the essay, but it occurred to me that this might explain in some way how grief exists in your work—both the process of writing grief and of being within grief? 

KH: Thank you. Yes, loss shades all my work. My academic self would like all readers—and myself for that matter—to be moved beyond a poem’s meaning and subject matter. I am speaking generally, not just about my own work.

LH: The phrase “foreign bodies” appears in several of the poems referenced above, once as a poem title. Foreign Bodies is also the title of your collection. You can read the term “foreign bodies” in so many ways, especially in this last set of poems. What associations do you hope that readers draw between the phrase, its denotations and connotations, and its placement in various poems as you near the end of your collection? 

KH: I wrote “Object Lessons” and other science-oriented poems for what I thought would be this collection. I had the heady notion of a trilogy. But that backfired because the draft collection was dull. Like I said, no electricity. After I wrote “The Ashes,” I had a better sense of how to move forward. And as the collection took shape, I realized that I needed to really explore the phrase “foreign bodies”: the Asian body (especially immigrant body), my mother’s body (Asian American but also the Other), and so on. The phrase became another organizing theme. Take away? I guess that we are surrounded by many kinds of foreign bodies, and that we are, all of us, in some way foreign.  

LH: As Foreign Bodies moves toward conclusion from the poem “Likeness: A Self-Portrait” to the “After Words for Ava,” you as the poet, or the “I” of your poems that is some part of you, seem to have a different understanding of body than in earlier collections. The physicality of desire remains, as does the inherited bodily connections between children and parents. But when I read and reread these final poems, I sensed a shifting acceptance of the body that contrasts with earlier collections, which seem to place the body in constant battle with expectation and reality, need and desire. Do you also see this shift, and if yes, what do you think brought about the change?  

KH: Where once writing about the female sexual body and the mother-body felt radical (and it was), I am not that person. And who wants to read about the aging sexual body. Since my father died, and I’ve begun to think about my own mortality, I’ve turned to think about what dying means. For me, it means “nothing.” The body literally becomes nothing. 

Anecdote: I was walking in midtown Manhattan some 20 years ago and bumped into a former neighbor who I hadn’t seen in years. He was an old Chinese immigrant who had been a cook in the Merchant Marines, and we’d been on friendly terms (mostly because I’d been the tenant organizer in that building). He was standing outside an OTB on Ninth Avenue. We greeted one another warmly, and his first words to me were, “My wife went home.” It took me a moment to realize he meant that she’d died. I was moved. Yes. Home. And now my mother has gone home, and that home is ash. It is, literally, nothing. That’s where I find my thoughts these days. Not for nothing—the pandemic brings Death outside one’s door, literally and figuratively. We are not at all isolated from Death. 

LH: In “normal” times, I would not feel compelled to ask how you are doing, but the pandemic does loom large. I wonder if you’d mind talking about how the pandemic has affected your writing, your loved ones, your community? As an artist, have you found ways to address what is happening around the world right now?

KH: Thank you for this question. I just tested positive for the coronavirus—but at this moment, no one knows how that will affect movement. Meantime: like most people, a great part of my current state is looking at the outside world through a screen, literally and figuratively. In the past, I read to my granddaughter nearly every morning, but now there is no way to see her beyond this. And my current craft class is all remote: my students say they are grateful for the course, but, honestly, there is a kind of shadow over all of them. Several live near the epicenter of the epicenter: Elmshurst, Queens. I am in a house with my husband, dog, and books on the end of Long Island. And we are able to take walks on a rocky shoreline. Harold has rescued two horseshoe crabs (flipped them right side up!) in the past week.

I was in a whirlwind before sequestering: in particular, I was in the midst of organizing a three-day chapbook festival on the Queens College campus in late March. We are now looking into a fall-spring series of online panels and maybe a Spring 2021 chapbook bookfair. 

But this is all to say that all my business halted. Life was suddenly a group of rooms. My writing practice has become small. Very short pieces as well as revision.

More important is what I’ll call my spiritual practice: every morning for the past week I’ve been reading a poem by Emily Dickinson. 

And now, this end of May—our country is rocked by murder of yet another African-American man. We are all witness. The question is what can artists do, however modest a gesture it might seem? What can we make of this jarring combination of tumult and sequestered-stillness? 

LH: As the former president of the Board of Governors for the Poetry Society of America (PSA), do you see particular challenges arts organizations will face in the coming months and, likely, years? What roles do you see for arts organizations in our communities as we struggle through this uncertain time and as we attempt to move toward a non-pandemic future?

KH: Well, now there’s no excuse not to make a reading or talk because it’s all on screen.  Availability is oddly amazing. Plus, it is an essential way to stay connected, albeit virtual. A small example: my husband and I have been watching the Frick Collection’s “Cocktails with a Curator.” Honestly, I am not that acquainted with their galleries, nor would I have chosen to stand and focus on the paintings that the curators have selected. But I absolutely love what I’ve absorbed about, say, John Constable’s “The White Horse.” At 15 minutes, it’s short-but-sweet programming. I am looking into “visiting” other institutions such as the Mütter Museum. 

The PSA? During her tenure, Alice Quinn ushered the organization into a sharply contemporary moment. When new executive director Matt Brogan started last fall, it was an opportunity for the PSA to review its role in the world of arts organizations and American life. There may be a shift away from readings and towards programming similar to Poetry in Motion and Poetry on Wheels. (Interestingly, poets came up with both those programs: Elise Paschen and Molly Peacock came up with the former; and if I may brag, I thought up adding poems to Meals on Wheels.) Now, with both the dilemma of isolation and opportunity for qualitative change, the PSA and other arts organizations will need to deepen alliances (as many governors have had to do because the Feds are not delivering on their task to take care of us citizens—but don’t get me started!) and to clarify roles. In my mind, the way Cave Canem altered the literary landscape over the past 20 years, O Miami may be an influential design for future: local in a true grass-roots model and as dazzlingly creative in its administrative programming as the poetry it promotes. Radical is the key.   


Lisa Higgs

Lisa Higgs’ third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2019. Her poetry has been published widely, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.

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