This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
“The mind writes what it is,” wrote Gertrude Stein, and “Subjects hinder talk,” posited Emily Dickinson—an oddly provocative, even radical statement tucked away in a letter, a volcano wrapped in a cloud. So, too, Kimiko Hahn in her new book, The Narrow Road To The Interior, dwells not so much in subjects as in the movement of mind the Japanese liken to a “running brush.” In “Compass,” the volume’s introductory piece, she suggests that “a sense of disorder might be artfully ordered by fragmenting, juxtaposing, contradicting, varying length or—even within a piece—topic.” Not subjects so much, then, as the movements and textures of mind.
Hahn is the author of seven books of poems, including The Artist’s Daughter (2002), Mosquito and Ant (1999) and The Unbearable Heart (1995), a remarkable volume that grapples with the sudden, accidental death of her mother. She has received numerous honors for her work, including a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, an American Book Award, and two fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. A long-time resident of Brooklyn, Hahn is Distinguished Professor of English at Queens College.
This interview took place shortly before Christmas 2005. We thought we had the timing and place of our meeting all under control and set to go, and were very pleased to have synchronized our divergent schedules. Our idea was to meet a few days before the holidays. Then the New York City Transit strike happened. So much for plans. We delayed a day. Waited. Still a strike, no end in sight. Finally, the next day, Kimiko was able to hitch a ride to my place near Washington Square, where we sat down with a tape recorder at the dining room table and talked for two and a half hours. Afterwards, she zipped up her warm white coat and gamely set off for home, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge along with thousands of other New Yorkers traveling in a line through the city’s winter dark.
Laurie Sheck When I first picked up the manuscript of The Narrow Road to the Interior, I was struck by the spacious feel of the work on the page. It felt like the record and embodiment of a mind exploring, moving around. Lots of white space in places. Text that looked like short blocks of prose, other pages with long indented lines, others with short lines. It had a wonderful feeling of both pattern and variation, randomness and order. The Japanese form zuihitsu that you use a lot in this book means “running brush,” and the book feels very much like that. It incorporates a sense of process, movement, juxtaposition, collage. Would you talk about the zuihitsu—what it is, what attracts you to it, and how you came to it?
Kimiko Hahn This might be a strange analogy, but I like to think of the zuihitsu as a fungus—not plant or animal, but a species unto itself. The Japanese view it as a distinct genre, although its elements are difficult to pin down. There’s no Western equivalent, though some people might wish to categorize it as a prose poem or an essay. You mentioned some of its characteristics: a kind of randomness that is not really random, but a feeling of randomness; a pointed subjectivity that we don’t normally associate with the essay. The zuihitsu can also resemble other Western forms: lists, journals. I’ve added emails to the mix. Fake emails.
LS I love the emails, the combinatory texture that arises from using a very old Japanese form while imbuing it with details and images from the twenty-first century. I think it’s also interesting at this juncture for an American writer to explore ways in which strict boundaries of genres can be broken down.
KH Maybe here is one place to pick up where the modernists left off? The technique of collage is really compelling to me. Letter writing, diary form—real and invented—I like to use within the zuihitsu itself. Of course the Japanese also used artfully composed diaries—nikki—that included poetry. My pieces that resemble a diary are far from a record of whatever I was doing that day—probably. So that’s what I’m trying to do: mix up genres within the zuihitsu and sometimes include fabricated material. As for my own history with this form, because I studied it mainly in translation at Columbia, I have to say it was more an academic appreciation. Then about 10 years ago, Ed Freidman, who was the director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks, held a millennium celebration of Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book, which was written around 1002 A.D. He asked me if I wanted to participate, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. It was only then that I sat down and actually wrote a zuihitsu—“The Downpour.”
LS When I first picked up The Pillow Book many years ago, it looked like prose to me. It’s interesting you saw its potential as a form for a poet to use.
KH I probably saw it as prose too, to tell the truth—although, you know, as an undergraduate, I read Paterson, which even then began to subvert my notion of what a poem should look like. It gave so much permission! But I don’t think I appreciated the potential of the zuihitsu until after I wrote “The Downpour.” A few years later, when my mother died, I immediately wrote a number of poems and they were sentimental in the worst possible way. I reformed them into paragraphs, and the paragraphs seemed to absorb the sentimentality in a way that a lineated poem could not. That was interesting to me, how grief could be expressed differently in paragraphs: how form changes content. Different from discursive or meditative poems, I think.
LS I can see that. The zuihitsu gives you enormous freedom to get on the page a mind that is associative, alive, intuitive. Calvino wrote in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, “Who are we, if not a combinatorial of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined. Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every conceivable way.” I thought of that passage when I read your new book because you seem to treasure the fact that a self is in a way encyclopedic, ambiguous, full of reachings in various directions.
KH I like his word inventory. I would say that each piece is an inventory, and that the whole book is an inventory.
LS Something else struck me about your use of the zuihitsu. There’s not one central point, not a dominant center, but interacting parts. John Berger said that with Cubist painting the spectator feels the discontinuity of space and is reminded that his view is bound to be only partial. It seems to me that’s something you’re willing to live with, the anxiety and the ambiguity of things being partial. In fact you celebrate the fragment in many ways.
KH Ambiguity is the opposite of clarity—so, in my mind, it shares a necessary relationship to clarity, if that makes sense. We know it as an important tool in poetry—like double meanings, which are highly valued in Japanese poetics. Also, leaving things partial can either be or be akin to synecdoche. I’ve read that Japanese refer to such suggestion as fragrance, kaoru. You don’t need to say everything, because the fragrance will continue, and you can keep experiencing what the fragment suggests even after the piece formally closes. Just because something is partial doesn’t mean that the whole is not, somehow, present. It just means that something is not going to be fully extended or even fully realized as an image. In putting together Mosquito and Ant, I wondered how much could be left out before losing, completely, the sense of a piece.
LS Doesn’t that seem faithful to what “thinking” is?
KH Yes, thinking and feeling, combined—and in terms of poetics, what we think of as mystery, or resonance, closure and anti-closure.
LS You have ways of bringing in fragments and leaps of thought that end up giving the work a great deal of associative richness.
KH I’ve always been interested in a sort of dialectic: where there’s blurring and ambiguity, there’s, finally, clarity. Where there’s contradiction, there’s clarity. Where there’s intuition, there’s reason. Fragmentation, wholeness. All these things can coexist.
LS The Japanese notion of sabi, of the beauty of irregularity, of the unfinished, the idea that the flawed bowl is the beautiful bowl, seems relevant here as well.
KH Yes, and in addition to the Japanese, a sensibility that is hopefully reminiscent of what Louise Gluck has called disruption and ruin. For my own purposes, if a piece feels too smooth I seek to rough it up, put in flaws, put in contradiction, because for me that makes things more compelling. And rather than subject or theme, I look for an organizing principle—which strikes me as more spatial and coincides with your point about thought process. An organizing principle isn’t necessarily concerned with content.
LS The tension in your work between an organizing principle and randomness makes the work feel beautifully wrought.
KH Funny—I started to mis-hear you when you said beautifully wrought. I thought you said beautifully raw, which I hope it is as well. That’s the dynamic, that even though it is wrought, there’s that randomness. After I write a zuihitsu I’ll go through and I’ll make sure it looks not only random but unfinished. I might take certain things out, scramble other things up and place certain things in, all very, very consciously. I’ll lay the pages out on the floor and use highlighters to see where I have certain elements—images, motifs, words—come up and I’ll move things around, and shape it so there’s a certain pacing. The asterisks help also. The text in between the asterisks, I hope, are little pieces in and of themselves—they could be read out of context. And I find that all very pleasurable. And of course wrought can indicate perturbed, worked-up. I love the notion of crafted disturbance!
LS Throughout The Narrow Road to the Interior you use another Japanese form as well, the tanka, and you make reference to and draw on several writers from the Heian period. What draws you so strongly to this particular period?
KH I first fell in love with that period when I found that women dominated the literature—for me that was extraordinary. As an undergraduate I was studying Japanese literature in translation when I learned that the men during that period were writing in Chinese, the way Western men would write in Latin. In other words, the educated people would write in a language that was not their spoken language. Women, who were not formally educated, would write in Japanese. And so while the men’s writing became increasingly stultified, the women produced incredibly vivid writing, to the point where some men actually wrote in a female persona, in Japanese. Soon this became literary diction. So it was women who dominated what is considered the golden age of literature in Japan. That was my initial attraction to that era and especially to The Tale of Genji—which is such an incredible soap opera, and considered the world’s first psychological novel. It has such a wealth of themes: longing, incest, karma and the female figure being both powerful and utterly without power. All that fascinates me. And it’s such an alien world because the women—aristocratic women—quite literally lived in the dark, in a sort of twilight because while the architecture opened the rooms up to the outside, it also utilized screens to create walls. Between the screens and the candlelight—the lighting was quite dim, shadowy. This created a perfect atmosphere for liaisons—as well as for mistaken identities. The men, of course, lived in the real sunlit world.
LS A twilight, yes. You write in the book, “Those women waited in boxes of semi-darkness, complexions pale as daikon, for the men.” In the last piece, “Conspiring with Shikishi,” you quote not only her poems but those of the predecessors who influenced her, and then you respond in turn. So it sets up this wonderful chain of responsiveness, which raises the whole idea that writing is itself a form of reading, a form of responsiveness.
KH That section also includes Hiroaki Sato’s translations of Oe no Chisato and Taira no Kanemori Shui, and several anonymous poets—so I’m responding to of all those poems, to his version of them. So there’s that complexity. It’s a tradition in Japanese literature and in my presumptuous way, I thought, I’m just going to stick myself into that current of Imperial anthologies and have fun, and so I did.
LS Yes, well, writing’s partly a conversation with the writing that’s come before it. Your series of tanka, distributed at key intervals throughout the book, chart the minute, often seemingly unremarkable moments of daily life through the various seasons. As far as I can tell, they move from the summer of 2000 to the summer of 2002.
KH Yes, they are a different chronological thread and as you point out, have a different relation to time. In the tanka form I found a way to pause and to just pay attention. At one point my life became very complicated, disorganized, and I lost my writing routine. So I thought, now is the time I should—at the very least in order to get back to a routine—I should try my hand at these. Around that time I was on vacation and by chance, at a secondhand bookstore, I found the book String of Beads: The Poetry of Princess Shikishi—which I already owned, but I purchased again—and I read them and actually took notes on the progression. I found different ways that she progressed in this very short form, and I imitated her minute strategies. I’d resisted the tanka form for a long time because it so often seemed to use the same almost programmatic movement: mainly observation/enlightenment, and that felt too predictable. But she taught me otherwise. I wrote maybe several hundred over a two- or three-year period.
From grasses fretting with oysters and crabs,
the mud stutters and I can tell you wait
for another dusk to ask me. And I am not
LS One obvious question is how your interest in Japanese literature might tie in with your own background. You’re the child of a Japanese American mother and a German American father. When you were a child was The Tale of Genjisomething that your mother would read to you, or was Japanese literature something that you came to later on?
KH I came to it in college. I did have Japanese folktales growing up. When I was a very little girl my mother would occasionally read stories to me in Japanese even though I had no idea what she was saying. So there was always the idea that there are languages that you don’t speak but you can feel and love. You don’t have to understand something for it to be a pleasure. Looking back all these years later, my memories of my mother reading to me—for me those are the most precious memories of our relationship.
LS Was Japanese spoken in your home when you were growing up?
KH No, we spoke English. But because my grandparents on my mother’s side didn’t speak English, language had that ambiguous aspect—for my whole family, I think. My parents spoke to one another in Italian when they didn’t want my sister and me to understand them—Italian they’d picked up when my father had his Prix de Rome for painting. So there was this on top of the Japanese.
LS But then how did you communicate with your Japanese-speaking grandparents?
KH We all spoke in baby words, so they would say good girl or nice food. Or they mixed up language—which is what pidgin is, in part. “You good girl, ne, Kimi-chan.” Partial communication. Also, I didn’t see them very often.
LS They lived pretty far away, in Hawaii?
KH Yes, my mother grew up on a plantation in Maui and then moved to Chicago right after the war. She went to secretarial school and art school. My father was at the Art Institute. They met at the Y, married and came east a few years later. I grew up in Pleasantville, New York.
LS When you were growing up, did you feel like an Asian American; were you labeled that way? Did you feel mixed?
KH Well, I did feel mixed: I was considered Japanese by most Americans, especially Caucasian Americans. You know, “the Other.” There’s an Asian American anthology from decades ago called American Born and Foreign. So that’s sort of what I felt like growing up, in the suburbs. When we lived in Japan for a year I was considered American. “Impure,” someone later informed me. So I was never really considered one thing or the other.
LS How old were you when you lived in Japan?
KH I was nine.
LS Did that confuse you—that in the United States you were considered Japanese, and in Japan you were considered American?
KH Yeah, it wasn’t very pleasant to never feel I belonged in either place. Not in Pleasantville, or Tokyo. Ironically, though, my mother, because of the war and being second-generation Japanese, rejected her Japanese background, which was pretty typical of that generation, while my father, on the other hand, was deeply curious and was studying Asian culture even before he met my mother. So it’s through my father’s interest that we came back around to my mother’s culture. We actually had a lot of Asian art objects around our house growing up, especially after living in Japan for a year. So I studied Japanese dance and flower arrangement and a little bit of tea ceremony and calligraphy. There is further irony, since a great many third-generation Japanese American activists did not know as much about the roots of East Asian culture as I did—the Eurasian.
LS Your year in Japan must have been quite extraordinary.
KH It was. My father took a sabbatical year to study art. We lived in Tokyo, which was gearing up for a wave of gaijin [foreigners] to attend the Olympics. Our apartment was a traditional two-room setup where the living areas were transformed into bedrooms at night by way of rolling out futons on the tatami floors. It was a lovely way to live, actually. I attended Japanese school and walked the, I don’t know, mile to school by myself. I think of a nine-year-old doing that now—living in a foreign country and being on her own—and it feels a bit frightening. But it wasn’t then. We traveled within Japan—seeing a lot of shrines and temples—then returned to the U.S. by continuing east and so visited Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Egypt, Italy and Portugal. Cambodia was my absolute favorite—that was in 1965 and a bit of a risk, really. I didn’t know that, of course. We went by pedicab to see Angkor Wat, and my little sister and I rode on an elephant through the ancient moats, monkeys chattering overhead. I remember seeing enormous half-buried temples with trees growing out of the heads of stone deities. At the inn we slept in a huge bed covered with mosquito netting. It was magical.
LS You’ve mentioned that your mother turned away from her inherited culture in many ways, and yet in The Unbearable Heart you write of the Buddhist rites associated with her death. Was there any Buddhist practice on your mother’s part? And what about in your life?
KH Only marginally. An underground stream. We attended a Protestant church, but I knew my Japanese grandparents were Buddhist, and we had a Buddhist service for my mother when she died. I guess the main exposure—every Saturday morning—came from Japanese language and dance classes at the temple on Riverside Drive. There’s a dance festival in July that commemorates one’s ancestors—and my sister and I always danced. Not my mother—I’m not sure why. So the sense of a Japanese heritage was both present and submerged. I only saw my mother in a kimono once; when I was in kindergarten she came to school for a kind of United Nations celebration. Her style of dressing, though, was influenced by Asian fabrics and muted colors. When she died, I considered becoming Buddhist, as a way of staying connected to her, I guess—but you know, I just can’t pray to a male deity. It’s just not in me.
LS Your mother died suddenly—
KH Yes, and I’d never felt as deeply—not any feeling—as I felt, and still feel, grief for my mother. A neighbor’s phone call woke us up before dawn—this was 13 years ago—and she told us that my parents had been in a car accident and that my father was in intensive care with broken ribs; that my mother, however, had died instantly, which he didn’t know. So my then-husband and I, along with my sister and her husband, drove up to Yonkers to tell him, to begin the process of taking care of him and all the things one has to do when someone dies. We also had to tell my girls, who were three and six. At the time I was working on a long piece inspired by Said’s Orientalism, and I had to put it aside. Nothing made any sense. I did immediately begin to scribble though—and out of those scraps came The Unbearable Heart. A poet friend told me how strange it was that the figure of the mother was actually dead, because in previous books there was so much longing to find her, to be with her; she felt fairly absent in my childhood and now she really was absent. He was right. Some of my grief is that I’m still looking for her, although I do get a tremendous amount of affection from my daughters. My husband’s two daughters are very affectionate as well. I’m very, very fortunate.
LS In The Unbearable Heart, you wrote, “I have decided to write a language of disruption.” And that book is full of shatterings, disjunctions. This new book, The Narrow Road to the Interior, on the other hand, evokes a very different kind of feeling, the feeling of a journey, for one thing. The title comes from Matsuo Basho—so here’s another influence, a seventeenth-century Japanese writer. And it comes from his travel journal. Did the governing idea and title of the book come to you early on in the writing process? Basho’s journal is referred to specifically in one of the poems, “Sparrow.”
KH The title probably came from working on that particular piece. The title to his book has also been translated as The Narrow Road to the Provinces and The Narrow Road to the North. There are about five different translations into English, but I love interior for its obvious double meaning, geographical and psychological. Also I just love the sound of the word interior.
LS In that journal, Basho writes at one point, “The journey itself is a home.” Your book strikes me as being very much in that spirit. It seems to me that one of the things your book is doing is investigating the idea of home, interrogating this from many different angles—asking, What is a home?
KH Your words make me shiver—that has long been an issue for me. The issue of belonging I described earlier. Where do I feel at home? Whether it’s feeling at home in a location or in my own skin, I’ve rarely felt at home. I can feel more comfortable in a hotel, oddly enough. What I’m hoping is that the journey in this collection is about flight but also about learning to stay. Not so much with a man, because the speaker, the character, leaves her husband and moves on to another relationship, but that she’s learning how to be a mother, to stay when it’s emotionally difficult to do so for a variety of reasons.
LS There are various kinds of home in the book: one finds a home in predecessors, in being with one’s daughters, in one’s own writing… .
KH And not even in one particular location, because it keeps moving. Literally, a sublet.
LS There’s a sublet in your book, an apartment with a yellow kitchen table, and the speaker seems very happy there.
KH She was very happy there. For the first time in a long time, she was without a man in the house and just with her two daughters, and suddenly she was happy in a way that she had never felt before. I am saying “she”—as if it were not me!
LS In your work there’s a recurring theme of a very female world. I don’t know what would have happened if you had had sons.
KH (laughter) I don’t know either! I think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: all the little girls who go out and are very important after all, whether it’s “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Sleeping Beauty”—those stories were mother’s milk to me. That’s what I grew up with. So the world, in that sense, is very female to me. Though, admittedly, the mother is often dead in those stories and the father quite present!
LS I wonder, speaking of home, when your children were growing up, where did you do most of your writing?
KH All my writing was done in coffee shops. I couldn’t focus at home. Not to generate raw material. I would take them to a babysitter, or later, to school, and I would keep on walking to the nearest café. When I’m at home I try to do laundry at the same time, and then there’s the telephone, and I’ll get up to get a cup of coffee, then I’ll notice there are things that need to be done. E-mailing is a terrible distraction among many. Now I have a little study, which I’ve never had before, and I find there are distractions even there. In a coffee shop or library there are other kinds of distractions, but not personal ones. Even before I had children, I’d work outside my apartment.
LS Do you take your computer with you?
KH No, I write longhand on college-ruled yellow pads, then later type a kind of second draft on the computer—that begins the process of revision. I might bring along a book or newspaper with me, to “talk back” to sometimes.
LS In Harold Pinter’s recent Nobel remarks, he talked about the difference between political language and literary language. He said, “Literary language, language in art, remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way underneath the author at any time.” You seem very comfortable, even curious, about ambiguity, even contradiction, in language. You’re also very attuned to the sounds and physical properties of words. You seem to just love them. I’m thinking about the ending of “Sparrow”: “I could not return to the body that contained only the literal world. Where sparrow does not suggest sorrow, where sorrow does not suggest sorry.” We hear language in the process of echoing and revising itself.
KH I feel if a writer doesn’t love words then they shouldn’t bother. It’s like a potter who doesn’t love the slickness of clay. Never mind what they make with that clay, but don’t you just have to love clay? To me, whether I write a successful poem or not, I just want to play with words. It’s what I love to do.
LS Yes, that comes through.
KH If it doesn’t, then I’m not doing what I want to do—sharing that passion, because it is not just about talking or expressing myself, or beating my breast, or telling a story, or any of those things. It has to do with just loving words. The way a child loves to learn words and to use words. I am really trying to get back to those early moments—what a sound is, what that sound eventually becomes, the idea that a sound has meaning. And if a word suggests many meanings, so much the better. It will reverberate. I think of Gertrude Stein; I think of the Japanese use of double meanings. We think of puns as being ridiculous, but in fact double meanings are an absolutely essential way to make the most out of economy.
LS We’ve talked about the influence of Japanese literature on your work, but what about English and American influences?
KH I’m very interested in Emily Dickinson and John Donne—at the moment specifically for their use of scientific and/or religious diction. It absolutely stuns me. To use the word quartz to talk about a numbing moment, or to write, as Donne does in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “like gold to airy thinness beat”—that use of alchemy—it’s just amazing. And then some of my Asian influences have come second- or third-hand through Williams and the Imagists. Eliot’s The Wasteland gave me permission very early on to bring things together from different cultures in one piece. And Eliot and Dickinson for the erratic way they sometimes present formal elements: whether his rhyme in “Preludes” or her dashes or slant rhyme. Then of course there’s influence from rock ’n’ roll and popular culture in general.
LS In your book you ask if women writers have a place in Western literature and your answer is Yes and No. How do you locate your own work within this?
KH I’m interested in bringing the female voice to the fore—also to see if that voice is qualitatively different. One dated literary myth is that women create babies and men create stuff—such as artistic masterpieces. But of course such myths are merely part of the larger picture of excluding women from having their say. That’s changed to a great degree. Dickinson’s, Plath’s and Gluck’s use of metaphor is, for me, very female. Each is like a shamaness. Magical. Disturbing. Powerful—but in a way that allows for vulnerability. There is also a shared tone and stylistic compression. Adrienne Rich’s “Calle Visión” also. Of course, any good art is going to be connected to the body through cadence, at the very least. Whitman’s loping lines or O’Hara’s prosaic meanderings. Still, I wonder as women’s poems are further included in the canon over the next 50 years, if there’ll be qualitative differences. I hope so, actually. For myself—I do wish to write from the body, from this female body. From the sacred and the scandalous, the luscious and the aging.
LS In writing, there’s a sense in which body and mind are inseparable, and maybe even genderless on some essential level. Dickinson’s dashes, Whitman’s ellipses carry processes of thought that activate the page in ways that feel totally alive, precise, electric. Your use of “luscious and aging” reminds me of Whitman. I wonder what you’re working on now?
KH Over a year ago I was commissioned to write a film text for photographer Peter Lindbergh and filmmaker Holly Fisher, and it’s just being completed now. Over the past year or so I’ve been working on a new series of regularly lineated poems. They’re based on outside source material, mostly from the New York Times science section. In general, whatever I find curious becomes my material. I think human beings are often drawn to the exotic, where a measure of license or a view of the Other is a kind of reverse mirror. For some, like Flaubert, this meant sex tours in foreign countries. For some it might mean cross-dressing. Lately for me I’m drawn to language that feels exotic, and this is the language of science. It is my exotic. The working title is Toxic Flora.
LS It’s interesting to hear about this movement into such different subject matter. But then again, The Narrow Road to the Interior is in many ways engaged with the whole idea of movement, of change. As we talked about earlier, in your writing the Japanese women are often waiting. But early on in your book there’s the image of a train and a journey. In many ways your book enacts the antithesis of waiting.
KH That’s good. That was my unconscious hard at work or my life hard at work.
LS Well, it struck me, and the book ends with a dash. The dash can be such a charged, dynamic gesture. You could say it’s almost the opposite of waiting in a box of semi-darkness. I wonder how you see that dash?
KH Well, that was also unconscious, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s funny, how the word dash goes back to ambiguity and wordplay, how the word dash is obviously a punctuation mark, but it also means not to wait, to leave.