Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
In episode #19 of Phoned-In, poet Feng Sun Chen reads from Butcher’s Tree and blud.
Feng Sun Chen, currently an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota, does not pull punches in the fresh-cut Butcher’s Tree (Black Ocean), nor in her earlier chapbooks blud (Spork Press), Ugly Fish (Radioactive Moat), and Paul Thek (self-published). In these rebuses, your southern Uncle Remus’s reinterpreted with an unplaceable accent, all the rather many potatoes shall be oralized, airily, potAto, verily, verily. So try to get that in your head, Mr.
The poems in Butcher’s Tree Slap Chop authorial voices into an oracular mixed contemporary, swallowing tongues as worn smooth as St. Peter’s toe and regirding them with new grit: a respect for digesting tradition as corrosive to that tradition as stomach bile. In “Play” we are invited to “burn up the futurist museums.” But when the paintings are brought back to life, or so, they’re less Severini’s trains than Soutine’s turbinal carcasses—specimens in a pulsating, mutant meat market, of indeterminate genre, gender, species, space-time. In Butcher’s Tree’s final sequence, a retelling of Beowulf mashed up with The Tempest, The Odyssey, The Little Mermaid and god only knows what else, Grendel’s male tongue is “castrated” by “the sea witch,” leaving a voiceless castrato—but “[This Grendel Is A Woman],” and can psych-sing in (parens) if you’ll ferret the melody down into its warren and out the other side with your unneutered eye.
In the kingdom of the blind, the man with one eye is bluffing. Argos-eyed Chen, dreaming the archival dream, is a one-woman blind man’s bluff at the center of the cultural panopticon, pulling the so-called American hybrid inside out, like trying to vomit up your coccyx. You gotta dig deep, deeper than that.
On a break from her tentacularly diversified web presences, from blog to Tumblr to Action-affiliate left-field necrotheory site Montevidayo to collaborative advice column cowritten by “cheeks,” Feng Sun Chen and I recently sat down together at our respective terminals to do some digging via gchat. The last first word to my forthcoming coccyx, who chooses on this occasion to quote our august guest, who writes, in “Fourth of July”:
I am small, I am small. Here comes the parade! All that beauty!
I want to die! I want to die!
I want to die!
(Hear hear), my coccyx says, (here here).
me: hi, feng, how are you?
ready for chaos?
Feng: yes. i am great when waiting for chaos
me: the wait is over
so – i have some prepared questions to ask you, but i thought this way maybe there could be some more elasticity in the conversation
2:05 PM as long as you’re ok with it
Feng: yes. did u ever see Antichrist?
i am thinking about the fox
me: i saw the trailer but never managed to catch it
Feng: there is a fox that says “chaos reigns”
me: i did see melancholia though
Feng: in really bad CG
me: as in a voiceover?
2:06 PM Feng: yes. it haunts me
melancholia is awesome
that is my answer to your question
me: the question about the voiceover?
Feng: it was a voiceover
2:07 PM me: now that’s what i call an answer to my question
me: should i ask a real one?
me: here goes:
Let’s start maybe by pulling this tree out by the roots. Or on the other hand, the same one, to start totally superficially: Butcher’s Tree is backed by blurbs from Lara Glenum and Ariana Reines, the former associated with Gurlesque, as the latter once more forcefully was, although she now trafficks more in some singular ghost that shimmered out of its lame’ corpse. But after having read the book, I was wondering about how you see your work in relation to those very recent foremothers, which relationship doesn’t seem, to me at least, at all straightforward. Your tactical distortion of fables and general avoidance of pop culture namechecks put me in mind more often of Elizabeth Bishop, say, than Chelsea Minnis.
2:08 PM Feng: i definitely agree
i think that the reason why they ended up writing those blurbs was because Janaka (editor) asked me about what poets I liked, and I listed them
2:09 PM actually I was mortified that they ended up reading the book
Feng: but I personally appreciate different types of writing so maybe it wasn’t that bad
I like Bishop, for example
2:10 PM I think when I wrote the book, I was in that stage of my writing infancy
me: i was thinking as i was reading it that it was in conversation with a much deeper tradition than i’d been expecting from the back
which was interesting
2:11 PM can i ask you, without meaning to be leading, if you associate that with a kind of authorial infancy?
2:12 PM Feng: to me, yes, because I was an undergraduate taking workshop classes and reading stuff like Plath
and Anne Carson
if being a writer is a “life” then that was how I was born
I don’t think I’m an adult now or anything. I’m a teenager
2:13 PM me: that’s a fast ascent to adolescence
hormones in the cow-millk
Feng: haha yes
I have zits now
me: Is this chronologically, of your work to appear, the first written?
metaphorical zits or actual (follow up question)
metaphorical and real
2:14 PM the metaphorical ones are more serious, like cysts
me: imaginary gardens with real zits in them
like marianne moore’s ‘poetry’
2:15 PM i was thinking that your book’s inclusiveness in its aesthetic felt almost polemical in relation to much more pointed ways of proceeding—any of the various -esques or -isms
Feng: that’s interesting
me: any of these movements, some of whose forebears (futurism, surrealism, imagism, etc.) are namechecked in the collection
2:16 PM was that anything you were thinking about? or, how do you metabolize history?
Feng: i think about it the way my mother decorates her home
2:17 PM she is transplanted, and doesn’t have a sense of “theme” or consistency in the way she does interior design
in a way, the different types of decorating/aesthetics are flat to her
me: so that she can put anything in?
2:18 PM Feng: she has random paintings that look italian next to traditional asian poetry calligraphy
she has an indoor fountain with rhinos on it next to tropical things
and ikea stuff
me: but rhinos ARE tropical
Feng: that is true
but i mean in the sense of paradise
2:19 PM like how some people decorate with beach imagery
me: paradise as a place where all aesthetics are equal?
Feng: i mean, palm trees = paradise
she doesn’t think it’s confusing or weird to have like, all that stuff together in the same room
me: if we carry this from your mother to you, then, do you feel similarly transplanted (you were, actually transplanted, right)?
2:20 PM Feng: yes, but I don’t usually feel it. I only see it when I think about it
2:21 PM I have this irrational belief or fear that I don’t have enough feelings
or that I don’t feel things
but I only write feelings
2:23 PM me: well, if you can feel in all these different ways, all these different, incoherent ways of having incoherent feelings, the idea of “really” feeling some “real” feeling seems sort of absurd
2:24 PM Feng: yes, i agree with that
me: and i was thinking it went something like that for writing: if you can write in all of these histories and styles, really write, what is “real” writing?
me: but that even though people might now pay a lot of lip service to that, actually doing it can be a pretty aggressive gesture
Feng: haha yes. i sometimes think about being in America and how expressive people expect you to be
me: right: people here are very earnest
2:25 PM even the poets
Feng: yes, poets should have lots of “feelings”
and they do
me: poets should have lots of “feelings” or lots of feelings?
me: since you said you only have the former…
2:26 PM Feng: i think earnestness is weird.
i don’t have that many “feelings” so i feel like the girl who sits by herself in the cafeteria
me: perfect segue
i was just going to ask, what’s up with potatoes?
2:27 PM Feng: hehehe
potatoes are awesome
i think it began as a joke with lucas de lima
Feng: and after the tony hoagland thing—he was trying to talk about talking about race as a poet
Feng: and he said something like hey look i dug up a dirty potato
and that was his metaphor for this racist tennis poem
2:28 PM me: wow
Feng: but lucas and I were talking a lot about vulnerability, shame, and having to be powerful or seem powerful
2:29 PM and we like how Zurita writes about his cheek
and I think potatoes are like the perfect cheek
it’s all cheek
me: that’s really interesting
Feng: and they sit in the ground while all this shit happens above and leaks down
me: so red potatoes are all blush
2:30 PM if you turn the potato cheek it’s like, infinite cheek
me: i had some idea it was connected to deleuze and rhizomatic subjectivity, but a much darker version, like the blind tuberous subject instead of the rhizomatic, emancipated schizosubject
“My true face is that of a potato. I have many eyes, but see nothing.” (“Terminal Conversation”)
Feng: right. the Mr potato head
me: without the swappable parts
Feng: but it’s also inviting them
2:31 PM me: i did have a nasty tendency to lose and/or eat those
that was the whole point. it’s very disturbing
me: a mr. potato head who’s all orifices – like with extra orifices
and then what goes there?
Feng: i like the chinese origin story of hundun
which is that chaos was this huge egg/potato shape
2:32 PM when the spirits decided to pierce orifices into it, it died
me: then what?
Feng: that was it. they wanted to stab it in honor of one of its sons of something
2:33 PM and then all suffering began or something. heaven and earth
me: what’s in the hole, though?
Feng: that is the question
2:34 PM me: So in addition to writing about potato-people, is there a way in which you potato yourself through writing, or is there a julienned lyrical I, or…? What I’m saying is, is this meat-and-potatoes poetry, or just poetry ABOUT meat-and-potatoes, and if which how so?
(i knew potatoes would be fruitful)
2:35 PM Feng: i think sometimes i can’t help being a potato. but writing is hard and sometimes inevitably distancing, which means that I end up cooking it
me: like “cooking the books”?
Feng: yeah. or whatever that raw and cooked stuff means.
i like sushi
me: i was thinking like “faking the accounts”
2:36 PM but raw and cooked makes sense too
Feng: oh right. i just saw breaking bad
me: cooking the meth
Feng: skyler cooked the books too
Feng: i think i have to fake accounts when i write
2:37 PM Feng: um, i don’t know. it doesn’t feel like it, but if i were explaining it to someone who doesn’t understand metaphor or is very literal, i have to tell them that i lie about things, and that’s what poetry is
2:38 PM that’s what one of my teachers said. actually i don’t believe it
i just lied again
me: do you associate that with the fabular tone of the poems in butcher’s tree? like, that frame is a way of being honest about it?
Feng: see, this is what i meant by chaos
me: it’s raining
(i lied. it rained yesterday in nyc)
Feng: i definitely agree with my friend who says that poetry makes her feel real, more real than real life
2:39 PM the means to that include all sorts of fabulousness
or not. like, lots of writing is not like that at all
and it feels real
me: even your own newer work
Feng: that it’s not like that? or that it’s full of fab?
me: well, both
2:40 PM or that it doesn’t need the fabular to feel more real than real
me: i’m thinking about the poems that we published in the claudius app, for example
2:41 PM which are much less allied to storytelling, much more deformed in terms of syntax
but which also feel super-propulsive in this realer-than-real way
what happened between the two?
2:42 PM Feng: um, thinking about different things
in the secret amazon poems, i keep thinking or hearing about terrible things. there is no way to talk about them or tell a story
i think in BT the subjects were less painful
me: (i have to ask about poems called bomb in an interview for BOMB)
Feng: haha yes
2:43 PM i can’t talk about bombs
but they’re everywhere
i have no understanding of them, how they work
they have “nothing to do with me” but they have everything to do with everyone
me: is “the secret amazon poems” a complete forthcoming group?
2:44 PM Feng: kind of. they’re a clump of poems that came from the same place
with amazons and bombs
me: if you don’t feel, how are some subjects more painful than others?
2:45 PM Feng: maybe i should have said feel joy, which would make more sense. but as for pain, i think it’s like going deaf after hearing the same sound over and over again.
2:46 PM but not even a loud sound
me: until the sound has nothing to do with you? since you’re deaf?
Feng: because my life is definitely of the joyful variety
no, it’s still there
like a thought
and low frequency vibrations
2:47 PM me: both kinds of poems for you do seem interested in this kind of public speech or speaking for everyone—and i’m thinking of the kind of almost-oratory that flares up in poetry every once in awhile
like, ben lerner does this sometimes or geoffrey g. o’brien
2:48 PM is that something you’re drawn to, albeit in a vastly different style?
Feng: weird, i never thought about it that way
i am not sure what you mean. is this about universal things?
me: i used my potato-head to come up with this one, probably
2:49 PM well, i was thinking that fabular narratives draw on a common speech, or a genre held in common
Feng: oh i see
i am interested in how things pass through the body
me: and the newer poems get to a similar universality, but through not having anything to do with you and everything to do with everyone
2:50 PM i was really struck by how bodily the poems are definitely
are these two things connected for you?
Feng: i think so
the idea of being part of everything is horrifying
me: i was thinking of the butcher’s tree poems especially as like “meatscapes”
“I will leave your flesh on the mountains, and fill the valleys with your carcass”
2:51 PM Feng: yes. i think kim hyesoon is the queen of that
me: i don’t know her work (confession)
2:52 PM Feng: she is so awesome. you should read all the garbage of the world unite
me: i will!
that title rings a bell actually
Feng: everything i do is like a diluted version of her density
me: density isn’t everything
Feng: i also agree with that
2:53 PM if everything were really maximally dense, we’d be like, at the beginning without the universe
2:54 PM before the orifice
Feng: yes, before the 9 holes
me: that’s such a nice omphalos we should almost stop right here
but i want to ask like three more questions
2:55 PM me: i definitely wanted to ask about the role of hybrids—between genres, genders, species, traditions
Feng: what a great word i just learned, omphalos
me: see—if we do this in gchat you can google and noone’s the wiser
(i’ll strike that bit)
2:56 PM well, i was wondering how the hybrids relate, like, across levels
me: there are all these circulating hybrids—the grendel sequence being the perfect storm of this
grendel is male/female, human/animal
2:57 PM but also drawn from beowulf, the little mermaid, and the tempest
so there’s hybridization IN the text, and hybridization OF texts
me: and i was wondering about, i guess, the combination of hybrid tactics with hybrid voices
2:58 PM Feng: oh, like the characters?
me: i guess i wanted to ask this because of earlier what you were saying about your mother’s interior design
2:59 PM me: sure, the characters ARE hybrids, but the narrative they’re in is itself cobbled to an extent from bits and pieces of other narratives
now i’m going to put a question mark here, retrospectively making all of that a question
? (my voice lifts)
3:00 PM i’m thinking about vomit
me: that sounds promising (i say earnestly)
3:01 PM Feng: i am not really sure how that was a question. but i will try to answer
me: if you can’t, i want to know what you were thinking about vomit
Feng: i was thinking about how difficult it is to digest everything
and how some of it is purged
3:02 PM perhaps the reasons for and methods of purging are different
certain combinations of food will make a person vomit
3:03 PM but as for the hybrid characters and tactics and stuff, i think it has to do with how i don’t have an identity.
it’s not like double consciousness
me: is it like purging the undigestible?
Feng: which is often a way of framing immigrant narratives
me: that’s true
3:04 PM Feng: yeah, to look at it. how they were all in the same place in the tummy, where you couldn’t see them. but if you vomit then you can see how they were being digested together
me: poetry as ultrasound or abortion
3:05 PM Feng: yeah. explaining things with other things
i’m always other things
other than me
me: last question
what are you now then?
Feng: difficult question!
3:06 PM me: (as a way of framing an interview narrative)
Feng: i am…
the wrong answers
me: or the secret ones
3:07 PM Feng: yes
maybe wrong things are secrets
me: i like that much better than secrets are wrong
Feng: me too
me: anything else for the record?
3:08 PM was there something you wish i’d asked?
Feng: wow i don’t know.
me: (this is my virgin interview for BOMB)
Feng: anything nothing to do with poetry?
i like this interview
3:09 PM me: man, i was just typing “what are you wearing?,” which is something a friend i talk to once a month or so always asks in an entirely non-sexual way
3:10 PM i am wearing a shirt with tiny giraffes on it. i put it on wrong, so one arm wasn’t in the sleeve. so then i took the other arm out and am wearing a shirt as a tube top. the color being the top opening. and some brown pants that are too big.
i mean, collar
so i have sleeves under my armpits
and dirty socks
are you going to tell what you are wearing?
me: i like the color being the top opening
3:11 PM Feng: me too
i’m wearing a ratty tshirt that says “if it wiggles” on the front and “it’s worth it” on the back
me: the name of my freshman dorm in college was “wigglesworth”
i should wear it as a tube top so the text wouldn’t be visible
Feng: that is great
3:12 PM me: thank you
Feng: thank YOU
me: and thank you for the interview!
Feng: yes, thank us
3:13 PM so this is the end?
me: the only problem with a gchat interview is concluding it
me: like, do you hang up first?
Feng: i really like pusheen the cat
me: or do i?
Feng: i will conclude with pusheen the cat
me: is there a link for that
me: i will click it and know that i have reached the end
Feng’s first book is Butcher’s Tree from Black Ocean. She is also the author of chapbooks and experiments Ugly Fish from Radioactive Moat, blud from Spork Press and other stuff. Recent poems appear on her blog, in Conduit, Kill Author, The Claudius App, Radioactive Moat and other places. She is currently a graduate assistant and MFA student at the University of Minnesota, and sometimes blogs for Montevidayo.com.
Jeff Nagy is a poet and co-editor of The Cladius App: A journal of fast poetry.
Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
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