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Literature : Interview

Subtext: Lisa Birman's Valentine to the United States

by Susie DeFord

On February 14th 2006 the Australian-born poet Lisa Birman received a unique valentine from the United States in the form of her green card. This experience prompted her new book.


Lisa Birman. Courtesy Hollowdeck Press LLC.

The word “valentine” can’t help but invoke images of cheap, cheesy paper Garfield valentines and boxes of colorful, chalky heart candies that say “Be Mine” and “Hot Stuff.” However, on February 14th 2006, the Australian-born poet Lisa Birman received a unique valentine from the United States in the form of her green card. This experience prompted her new book for that return passage–A Valentine for the United States of America (Hollowdeck Press). In the preface of which she writes:

I courted a country. Five years of batting my eyelashes on paper.

Five years of unrequited, of loving enough for both of us.

February 14, 2006. A proposal arrives. “Welcome to the United

States of America.” “This is to notify you that your application for permanent residence status has been approved.”

And then goes on to personify the United States in her questioning:

I am unsure. All the same questions. I love you. Do I love you enough? You are not who I thought you were. I love you still. Are you the one?

In for that return passage we, the readers, get to experience the immigration process through poems, some even made from blacking out words in actual immigration forms and the graying out of words in documents like the Residential Oath of Office. Birman uses mistranslations and even online poem generators to create her innovative Valentine for the United States.

Lisa Birman is the author of, and co-editor of Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action (Coffee House Press). Her recent work has appeared in Trickhouse, Tarpaulin Sky, 580 Split, Bombay Gin, and not enough night. She is the Director of Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, where she also teaches for the MFA in Creative Writing.

Susie DeFord Did you first conceive of writing a book about your relationship with the United States or did you just find yourself writing several poems about your immigration experience and then decide to make it a book?

Lisa Birman I got my green card on February 14, 2006. It was a strange valentine and I wanted to find a way to return it. I’m always writing about love and geography, but the whole project really came together with the Valentine’s Day date. Valentine’s Day is just a weird day. It’s this completely insincere lovey day. I felt like I’d been courting the United States for five years and that on Valentine’s Day it got down on bended knee and proposed. But when someone declares their love on Valentine’s Day, it’s just a little questionable. It’s less surprising than someone declaring their love on February 13.

So when I got my big Valentine’s Day proposal, I was giddy and thrilled and just slightly skeptical. Living in the States from 2001 to 2006, the honeymoon was over. It was like having my bluff called about making my life here. I realized it was exactly the same kind of pattern we go through in falling in love with a person. You fall in love, and you’re not quite sure why. You find out a little more about the one you love. You love them a little more and a little less for the knowledge. You let them see a little more of you. They love you a little more and a little less for the knowledge. You do this dance, this discovery. And eventually you decide whether you love the real person/place as much as you love the fantasy person/place. That’s what I was doing in writing the book. I was finding out a little more about this place, and about my place in it. And I’m still here.

SD A few of the poems in the book are your versions of famous poems by e.e. cummings and Walt Whitman, to name a few. I found this interesting since poets always seem so concerned with expressing only their own voice. Yet, in order to develop as a poet one must study other poets. Can you discuss how you came to write these poems and what insight the experience of experimenting with other poets’ voices gave to your own work?

LB There’s a great tradition of “mistranslation” in contemporary poetics. Usually these are homophonic translations – taking a piece written in another language and translating it through sound. Taking my inspiration from these homophonic translations, I was interested in translating or transforming the object of the poem. I conducted experiments on poems. I wanted to see if some of these great love poems could be applied to place as much as to person. One of the central themes of the book is that decisions of citizenship can mirror decisions of love. As a writer, I think through the page. I knew the thesis was true for me, but I wanted to find out if other people thought that way too. My access to their minds was through their poems. So I had to enter the poems with them and redirect our gaze to make the United States our new beloved.

I also saw these translations as a form of collaboration. Collaboration gives you access to leaps you might not make on your own. Working directly with the words and images of another poet brings the third mind into play. It allows you to go places you might not have discovered on your own. Working with Pablo Neruda’s “Saddest Poem” helped me understand the constant homesickness of the immigrant in a way that reaches beyond my personal experience. The e.e. cummings pieces were particularly interesting to work with. I felt like I could have translated any number of his pieces as valentines.


Courtesy Hollowdeck Press LLC

SD You have a few poems created from an automatic love poem generator on a romance website called Links2love. How did you come to find this site and use it to create poems?

LB I looked at a couple of different online automatic poem generator sites, but this one was the funniest. There are a lot of these around. It’s kind of like mad-libs for poets. You fill in certain words—like a fruit, a bird, type of liquid, body part, verb—and it builds a poem around your words. Even as you’re filling it in, you’re thinking, “Why does it need a liquid?” But you fill in all the details and click “Create My Love Poem” and there you have it.

I did an experiment where I filled in “America” for each word and it generated some fantastically cheesy poems. But of course because the poem is built around this one word that keeps repeating, something interesting happens rhythmically and the word also kind of disassociates.

For a long time, I stuck to the generated poems exactly as they came out. Then when I was putting the final manuscript together I realized that these were really in the same genre as the other found text pieces and that I could edit them if I wanted to. But 90 percent of the “My Love” poems are straight out of Links2Love.

SD You experiment a lot with found poems by graying or blacking out words in immigration documents and applications. You even composed the poem “(legal) tender” by using only the language from a US dollar bill. How did your fascination with found poems begin? Do you see poems in every document you read?

LB One of the gifts of working with found language is that it keeps you open to all of this incredible language that we’re constantly surrounded by. One of my first experiences with found poetry occurred in a nature writing class. Our homework was to write while walking, using direct observation to transfer the energy of the environment into our text. I live in Boulder, Colorado, so the nature’s pretty spectacular. But I’d just come back from my first belly-dancing class, and after one’s first belly-dancing class one’s hips are pretty spectacular too. I was trying really hard to focus, to look at the trees and the squirrels and the fire hydrants, and then I saw a road sign that said “Bump,” and I thought, “Yeah, that’s my nature walk. It’s about the bump.” And I wrote a piece that centered on that one word of found text. The “bump” of being in a body.

In the five years of paperwork that went into getting my green card, I often talked with friends about using some of the language of immigration forms. The language of immigration is so strange, as is the whole application process. You have to fill in the most ridiculous forms, and the language is already very poetic. There’s a lot of repetition. There’s an unusual mixture of antiquated and very contemporary phrasing. And there is always surprise.

I wanted to find new ways to work with found text. The gray-outs let me work with the page as a three-dimensional space. I see them as poems with three margins—the black text, the gray text, and the black and grey text combined. So it’s possible to read the emphasized text, the silenced or gray text, or to blend them back together.

I owe my publisher, Max Regan, a lot of thanks for the blacked out documents. In the manuscript I had manipulated the documents, filling things in and crossing things out. He suggested using the black out technique to reference redacted text. Once I tried it, the pieces made more sense. The form and content came together to represent the confusion of the immigration process, how you’re constantly trying to piece together some kind of story from the tiniest scraps of information.

I do see poems in documents and forms. It’s a lot more fun that way. It makes filling in any document a creative endeavor. You’re still filling in the form, but you’re stealing words as you go.

SD Can you tell us about the differences and similarities you see in the US and Australian literary scenes?

LB I originally left Australia in 1995, and things have changed a lot since then. I did my undergraduate studies at Melbourne University, which at the time had one creative writing class. Now the MFA culture has caught on there, and there are a lot more opportunities to study and teach creative writing. Melbourne was recently named a City of Literature by UNESCO and is establishing a Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. So I think there’s going to be a lot of growth and I’m excited to see what happens and hopefully be a part of it.

Most of my experience as a writer has been in the US, and that’s certainly where I’ve found my poetic community. I’ve been really fortunate to be involved in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. I teach and work at the Summer Writing Program, through which I’m constantly meeting new writers and reading their work. There’s a great sense of community and samizdat traditions are valued and supported. There’s a pushing of genre boundaries too, a lot of experimenting across the arts and playing with what a poem is on the page, whether that changes in performance, how there can be multiple forms for one piece.

Probably the biggest difference between the US and Australian literary scenes is population. Australia has less that 8 percent of the population of the US. That’s obviously a much smaller audience and support network for literature. Even as we question borders, literary scenes tend to favor their geographies.

SD You’ve traveled a fair amount. Often people have regional anecdotes that highlight their experience with the culture of that region. Do you have an American anecdote? An Australian?

LB As a first generation Australian, the immigrant experience has been especially comforting. Both of my parents were born in Europe and came to Australia as children. They pretty much grew up in Australia and have Australian accents, so I never really thought too much about being “first generation” while I was there. In 2005, I lived in Prague for a few months. During my first few weeks there I noticed that I kept seeing people who looked like my relatives. I’d stop in the street and think my Auntie Rachel had just walked by. It wasn’t an experience I’d had in Australia or in the United States. I realized I was, for the first time, living in my gene pool. It was very distracting and comforting at the same time. Though Europe had been an unsafe place for my family, I felt strangely at home.

My American anecdote is actually in the book, the piece called “The Key.” A friend really did give me a key with the US flag on it, and I still have it on my keyring. To me, it’s a totally sweet gift from a friend. But the US flag has had some image issues over the last years, so it has also been an interesting barometer. I’ve had strangers make a lot of assumptions about my political views because of that key. To me, it’s my pre-green card green card. My original invitation to stay. But I’ve enjoyed the disjunct, how it rubs against the public interpretation of “patriotism.”

Tags:
Immigration
Love
Collaboration
Found poetry
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