The son of immigrants from China, David Woo was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Divine Fire and The Eclipses, which won the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. Woo’s work has been widely published in magazines such as The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The Threepenny Review, and in anthologies such as the Library of America’s American Religious Poems and The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America.
Gerald Maa: Congratulations on a richly imagined book, your second. What was the genesis of Divine Fire? Which poems came first?
David Woo: Thank you, Gerald. I think complacency is the death of art, so I open myself to as many sources as I can, to distant memories, to what I’ve been reading, what’s in the news, what I hear on the streets. That said, the first poem I wrote for Divine Fire was “The Death of the Family Poem.” My first book was primarily about family, especially the death of my mother, and I felt that I had to leave behind my lapsed-Confucian reliance on filial piety and rebellion. Although I mention Henry James in the poem—I’ve always admired his involuted late style—I’d say the presiding spirits of Divine Fire are the great Spanish poet Luis Cernuda and the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. For my entire adulthood Proust has been my go-to masterpiece, but in the last decade or so, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet has quietly displaced In Search of Lost Time in my affections. What I gained from Cernuda and Pessoa—one openly gay long before it was safe to be out, the other defiantly undefined, a mixture of all his poetic personas—was a certain tonality of exiled restlessness or sardonic disquiet married to an almost helpless yearning for the sublime. As the years have passed and American political and cultural life, not to mention the environment in which we live and breathe, has undergone previously unimaginable corruptions, I’ve sought ways to express how my consciousness has changed in response, whether by fleeing into the private life, seeking greater political engagement, striving for radical empathy, or searching for what lies beyond, in the sacred and the divine. Divine Fire is the product of those changes in consciousness.
GM: What a shift in the presiding spirit. Proust and Pessoa share an essential, life-long project: investigating the nature of masks, or persona, in the work of fiction. But they do so from opposite vantage points: Proust from a singular, ostensibly autobiographical position; Pessoa from myriad pseudonyms, or what he called “heteronyms,” because each name was to embody a life independent of all the others. What have you learned about persona and imagination, fiction and “real life,” as you wrote these poems, especially in light of having written The Eclipses?
DW: All literary writers, of poetry or novels, use their own experience. What else do they have? If they’re any good, they transmute autobiography into something worthwhile as a literary object. In my work, the “mask” first arises from the act of writing itself. For example, in The Eclipses, even when describing the death of my mother, I found myself shaping experience, omitting, and creating out of whole cloth, ostensibly to get at a deeper truth but often because “actual experience” was inadequate to the feeling and form I wished to create. I felt monstrous at times, as if I were mutilating the memory of my own mother. Proust’s snobisme and cruelty mostly arose from being a neurasthenic, wealthy man benumbed by experience, someone who could only feel real by donning a mask of sexual sadism, as in the story I mention in my poem “The Changes” from Divine Fire. What interests me about Pessoa—and I actually prefer his prose work The Book of Disquiet, which is by the “semiheteronym” Bernardo Soares, who is almost interchangeable with Pessoa himself—is an approach to life that is utterly modern, without pretense, with a self-aware clarity that feels as if all masks were falling away and the truth were being rearranged into words: “Sometimes, with a sad delight, I think that if some day, in a future to which I may not belong, these words I’m writing will endure and receive praise, I will finally have people who ‘understand’ me, my people, the true family to be born into and to be loved by. But far from being born into it, I will have already died a long time before. I will be understood only in effigy, when affection no longer compensates the dead person for the disaffection he experienced when alive.” (tr. Alfred Mac Adam) With Divine Fire I tried to be as various as possible, perhaps because I’m an American in the Whitmanian tradition of “containing multitudes.” I put on as many masks as I could—comic and ironic and serious and sacred and profane—in order to find a similar authenticity and, I hope, to give a modicum of pleasure for which, if I’m lucky, I’ll receive some affection while still alive!
GM: If the warp for these poems is the transmutation of worldly experience into literary work, then the weft, at least to me, is being in crisis. So many of the poems here were written in times of crises. The types of crises vary widely, but they all are 1) presented more as forms of experience than as anecdotal events, and 2) intensely difficult moments of decision-making. To me, this is the basic reason I find reading your poems salutary. When working on these poems, what did the moment of crisis provide for you to think about imagination, or vice versa?
DW: In The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, written in the fifth century, Liu Hsieh said something similar: “Emotion is the warp of literary pattern, linguistic form the woof of ideas … This is the fundamental principle in literary creation.” Another way of putting it is that crisis can intensify inspiration to a boiling point. I’m not in crisis now—in fact, I’m happier than I’ve been in my life—but for a long time, I willfully followed a caricatural version of the Keatsian notion that one should be half in love with death. I sequestered myself to provoke an uneaseful clarity of inner life. Susan Sontag: “One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.” In the aloneness I sought during much of the time I wrote Divine Fire, I found myself, of course, yearning to return to people. As the son of immigrants, I watched with revulsion the demonization of hard-working immigrants (see my “Leaf Blower” poems). As a gay man who isolated himself for long periods during the AIDS crisis, I watched the fall of old gay culture and the rise of the hookup app (see “On Refusing to Be on the Make”). As an American and a citizen of the world, I felt provoked out of solitude by the benightedness of our politics, the inequality that has dismembered civil society, the wars and the decline of the environment, the increasing horror of climate change and, now, the new affliction made immeasurably worse by cruelty and ineptitude, the pandemic (see the unnamed catastrophe in “Queue”). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing an ode to the joys of Grindr. But I’m interested in something else, not a Platonic ideal of experience but an affective template transferred into words that conjure parallel emotions in the reader. I agree with Wittgenstein when he says, “What is eternal and important is often hidden from a man by an impenetrable veil. He knows: there’s something under there, but he cannot see it.” These days it’s considered gauche to admit it, but I do try to penetrate the veil. My writing—my transformation of experience into literary work, by means of imagination or creativity or literary subterfuge—is helplessly, abashedly, and, sometimes, defiantly, an attempt to do so. And all that I’ve valued in literature, from the Gilgamesh forward, tells me that I am not alone in the attempt. It may be the only contradiction of the Proustian dictum that “each of us is truly alone” that I actually believe in day by day.
GM: There is a strange communion in reading these poems. The poetry does not feel completely like a soliloquy overheard, as John Stuart Mill famously characterized it. Rather, the poems feel as if spoken sotto voce, an intimate conversation between two amidst the din of the greater public. What is the hope for and from the reader of these poems?
DW: I like intimacy as a desideratum of the poetic impulse. My work may be “a call in the midst of the crowd,” but it is far from being “orotund sweeping and final.” Our times are too diminished for anything but sotto voce confidences to neighbor, friend, lover, and stranger. And yet I don’t hear a dialogue, imagined or hoped for, when I’m writing a poem. A long time ago the first poem that I ever published appeared in The New Yorker and, in my innocence, I thought I would receive some sophisticated feedback from my readers. The only piece of fan mail that the magazine forwarded to me was a note from a teenage girl. It was written in purple pen and all the dots over the i’s were little hearts. It was very sweet and kind, but it wasn’t what I expected or wanted. I write as best I can and send my work into the world. I no longer hope for anything in return. And even if I could, it would be futile to control any response. “It must be abstract, it must change, it must give pleasure,” Wallace Stevens famously said. I’d go with the second and third if I had a supervillain’s power of mind control. But I don’t.