INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
While his work has a clear figurative language, the large-scale paintings of Juan Miguel Palacios contain a strong conceptual load, where his work developed in series, and has a constant wandering of the individual's identity and its relationship with the environment. Concepts such as mourning, duel, luxury, restlessness, and inequality are constants vital in his work. Juan Miguel Palacios continually explores the complex range of human emotions with a free, powerful, and always modern technique. He is driven by the search for new forms of expression and fuses sociopolitical themes with personal experiences and historical antecedents of art, creating a unique and modern environment on the most outstanding and controversial issues of contemporary society. Canvas, vinyl, methacrylate, aluminum, and drywall are surfaces where Juan Miguel Palacios presents his shocking and extensive work.
Born in Madrid in 1973, Juan Miguel Palacios begins to paint at the early age of 6 years. After a long journey with many art professors and Fine Art schools, at age 12, he joined the studio of the renowned Spanish painter Amadeo Roca Gisbert (disciple of Joaquin Sorolla) for six years. Along those years, he was educated and formed in a strict academic training until he joined the Faculty of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1991. When he had completed his college degree, in 1997, he founded the Laocoonte Art School of Madrid. During this period, he combined mentoring and teaching with the development of his artist career. Currently, he resides in NY since 2013, showing his work around the world.
The image of the pig is a common theme throughout your work. Where did this interest stem from?
In general, the theme of animals has been quite recurrent in my work, always as metaphors of what I want to express. For example, for many years I worked with the image of a hyena as a symbol of oppression within an increasingly unequal society. This has been a central theme of my work for the last few years.
On this occasion, for the development of the new series "Un final feliz," the pig seemed to me the perfect figure for the new narrative that I wanted to present. The pig is an animal that has been present in all cultures. It is loaded with strong symbolism, loved and revered by some and hated by others. An animal that pleases and amuses us but at the same time we dislike and disgust it. In Spain, where I am originally from, it is present in all our gastronomy, which we consider delicious but, at the same time, it is always present in our insults. That duality and contradiction itself is what really interested me in addition to its great visual load.
Texture plays a role in many of your pieces, adding dimension and depth. How is texture important to your practice and how do you go about choosing a certain medium for a piece?
Texture plays a very important role in my work. For me, it is another fundamental element in the practice of painting, just like color. I cannot conceive a piece of art without color even if texture is absent. Whether the texture of a piece is flat or smooth is intentional.
As you were saying, in many of my paintings I not only use texture to create dimension and depth, but also to create narratives that I cannot achieve by just drawing or painting in a conventional way. For example, texture can generate optical illusions that confuse the viewer and force a more careful look.
In this way, the materials and mediums that I choose for my works play a very important role. For example, for my "Wounds" series, the use of drywall to create broken wall effects was vital. Fundamentally, this series talks about inequality. In my opinion, women have suffered the greatest injustice and inequality in the history of humanity. In such a manner, I was creating female faces that had been or were being assaulted. I was painting on a first layer of transparent vinyl and then superimposed on a second layer of broken drywall. The broken parts of the wall represented the scratches and wounds produced by the aggression. In a metaphorical way, I wanted to create an analogy between the wall and the woman. Something so hard, strong and resistant, but subjected to constant aggression ends up breaking. The drywall became a key part of this series.
The combination of lightness and cleanliness of the transparent vinyl with the roughness and hardness and depth generated by the broken drywall, like the combination of something more illusory such as the paint strokes and the realism of the pieces of the broken wall create a confusing effect on the viewer at first glance. Something that was very attractive to me as they were such strong and evident images. In short, depending on what I want to tell and express, I use different materials.
I found the use of negative space in Assaults so compelling. Can you speak about the process behind and the interaction between those works?
Something that always interests me to do in my work is transferring a concept I want to communicate into a form of representation. For example, if I'm talking about the concept of aggression or abuse, I will try to carry this abuse or aggression by hammering and burning the wall, throwing turpentine on the canvas, scratching the paint, or removing it with paint remover.
For these works, I used transparent vinyls as the surface and synthetic enamels as the medium. Enamel, an oil-based paint, dries faster than oil paint. So by the time the painting was done, between 30 minutes and an hour later, the first sketch lines were already practically dry. By throwing the solvent to deform the paint, I was removing much of the paint except for those first preparatory lines that were almost dry, thus leaving large empty spaces. That concept of absence was really interesting for my discourse because every time that there is an aggression, there is an empty space. A fissure impossible to fill. Something that was, and will never be again.
You depict a variety of faces and personalities, especially in The Wanderers and Emociones. Where do you find your subject matter?
The topics that I work on are usually based on what I am living or thinking at every moment. The things that worry and concern me or the issues that I want to denounce. My daily walks and especially my train commute to the studio are usually moments of reflection and inspiration for all the thoughts I wanna communicate.
The New York subway is that magical place where everything is possible. You can practically find all kinds of social classes and cultures in a very small space. When I arrived in NY, I remember being utterly in love and enraptured by everything—every single image I saw, each aspect and scene. But above all, of every single person and the immense diversity of them.
The richness of this scenario itself was presented to me with splendid beauty. But as time passed, with a further and deeper look, behind that superficial beauty, I started to notice the loneliness behind it. Gazes of sadness and melancholy, faces with no expression. They represented a kind of theatrical stage full of wanderers in the kingdom of heaven. New York is a city that welcomes hundreds of thousands of people, attracted by its splendor and wealth, every year with the sole objective of having a better life or success. But as everyone knows, it is a very tough city. A city in which everyone arrives with great energy; but as time goes by, the city wipes out and frustrates illusions, generating wanderers trapped in a lonely city. This type of appreciation was, for example, the origin of the Wanderers series.
What an empathetic and tender origin story—I feel so similarly to your depiction of New York. Your artwork is humongous! What is it like in the studio working with such large-scaled work?
Working at a large scale is what I love the most and where I really find myself. The physical act of painting becomes movement and dance. My thoughts move at the same rhythm as my body and they both connect with my deepest emotions. It's where everything is fast and the paint falls off. Drips and spills get everything stained and the studio itself becomes an extension of the paintings themselves. Hazard is part of the creative process in the most remarkable way. In short, it is where the walls of my studio exude happiness.
The problem with large and heavy formats is that your body pays a toll and it wears and tears over time. I am still recovering from my third major spinal surgery.
What are you currently working on?
The last series that I worked on before undergoing my last back surgery was Un final feliz, a series of works that were more fresh and fun.
It was a social and political critique, especially of the American culture, sarcastically tinted with ironic overtones since everything revolves around the iconography of two pigs procreating at the foot of a collapsing town. The series is much more colorful than the previous series and has a greater tendency of abstraction, which is where I am heading at the moment.
Precisely at this very moment, I'm moving my studio to a bigger place after 10 years in the same location since I moved to NY, which symbolically represents a big change for me that I hope will also be reflected in my work. I have the feeling that great things are gonna happen there. Stay tuned.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Interzone, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks HOLLOWED (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and ABSORPTION (Harbor Review, 2022). Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.
The first piece of yours I came across was "Money Baby," where the writing, reading, coding, and sound effects come together so ingeniously. How did "Money Baby" develop and how did you realize writing and coding could form such a perfect union?
“Money Baby” was actually part of a series of different pieces (many of them interactive) I did inspired by children or babies in non-human forms, so I guess I was already on a roll. The editors of Superstition Review told me I could do something creative with the recording, so it was their prompting that sparked the idea with the coin rattling audio. Ultimately though, I just wanted to explore money as a means of defining worth, livelihood, family, and nurturing.
In terms of writing and coding, I had always been interested in generative art and would often code interactive visuals—visualizing music, playing with ARKit, etc. I decided “why does it just have to be art? Can’t it be writing too?”—probably because I was tired of whatever story I was working on that day and wanted a break. Fun things come from procrastination.
That’s amazing! I wish such fun ideas came from my procrastination. Your interactive/digital work is simply so brilliant. I especially love “Heat death didn’t stop us from being shut-ins,” “Saplings,” and “Backspace.” How did these ideas originate, especially since they’re all so distinct and individual?
How do you maintain a writing schedule while also working as a software engineer? Does your day job influence your writing?
I’m not sure I can call it a schedule. If I don’t write frequently enough, I begin to feel this growing sense of dread that doesn’t go away unless I pound out two to three thousand words (or so). This happens about once a week. Work has gotten rather busy lately which means less time for writing, so I’ve been feeling that dread more frequently. Can I call this Dread-Driven Writing? DDW? Maybe if you ask me six months from now, I’d have a different answer, but right now, work life is on fire which means writing life is also on fire (metaphorically). The influences from my day job are pretty straightforward: I like to write about technical things, engineers, robots. Sometimes these influences manifest in different ways, but ultimately it all comes down to expressing the geek inside.
Thank you for that honesty, Lucy. I feel the same dread. I love your project I CAN SEE YOU WRITE. Can you take me through the process of collaborating with another writer?
The process is actually quite simple! Sometimes the writer will already have an idea for something interactive, but they aren't certain what's quite possible, or maybe they have no idea beyond an inkling of potential for a certain piece. They'll send me the piece in text form, and I'll run off with my creative liberties. I'll do a lot of experimentation and have anywhere from a 50% complete to a 99% complete project. Then I'll send over an implementation of what I have with any open questions. From there, we'll iterate.
Congrats on Hollowed and Absorption! Two chapbooks in a year! How does it feel?
I’m honored that Thirty West Publishing and Harbor Review had faith in my works and published them. It’s also a very nice feeling to see my friends who don’t care much at all about literature holding copies of my chapbook. Also, prior to the chapbooks, I never put much time into collecting all of my individual pieces, so with these publications, I have a new-ish interest in actually doing something with once write-and-forget-about stories 😆
I’m curious if Hollowed and Absorption were created with each other in mind. You use the word “hollow” or “hollowed” in the pieces “Jiaozi,” “The Carriage Became A Pie,” and “Teach Me All There Is to Know” in Absorption.
They weren’t! I don’t think that far ahead in life, hah. I think that’s more a result of me gravitating toward similar themes and emotions.
:) Absorption contains a lot of scientific word choice. Can you speak about this decision to employ detailed scientific language to discuss themes of life and death?
I often find it relieving to look at abstract concepts in extremely clinical terms. When I approach heavy topics from a more scientific lens, I start fixating on the engineering bits of how something works. It's easier for me to visualize and get excited about something that I know will have an answer if I look deeply enough as opposed to something as nebulous as death.
I've been working with some folks on new projects but those have been taking their sweet time because the salary-earning job has begun to leave me with negative energy levels at the end of the day. That being said, I have ideas and really want to work on more long running projects connected by a theme of some sort. Maybe I'll get hacking away again during Thanksgiving break :)
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Young Joo Lee is a multimedia artist from South Korea, currently living and working in Cambridge, MA and Los Angeles. Lee holds an MFA in Sculpture at Yale University (2017) and a Meisterschueler degree in Film at the Academy of Fine Arts Städelschule Frankfurt (2013).
In her recent moving image works, Lee's personal narratives as an immigrant, South Korean, and a woman interweave with the current and historical narratives to investigate the issues of alienation, discrimination, and mental illness in late capitalist society.
Lee’s works have been exhibited at the Alternative Space Loop- Seoul, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art- Seoul, The Drawing Center-New York, Museum of Modern Art, Zollamt - Frankfurt, Curitiba Biennial, and GLAS animation festival, among others. Lee completed several artist residencies including Macdowell (US), Sanskriti Foundation (India), MeetFactory (Czech Republic), and Incheon Art Platform (South Korea). She is currently a Harvard Film Study Center fellow She currently is a Visiting Lecturer in Animation and Immersive Media Art at the Department of Art, Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. She was a College Fellow in Media Practice at Harvard University (2018-20), a Fulbright Scholar in Film & Digital Media (2015-18) and a recipient of DAAD artist scholarship (2010-12). Her work is represented by Ochi Projects, Los Angeles.
Lizardians combines animation, writing, music, and dance into such a compelling story. I loved that you included a watercolor painting of a panel on your website. It’s always so cool to see how artists arrive at their final piece. What was the process like behind creating Lizardians and working with a production team and cast?
Lizardians took quite a long time. I wrote the script in 2016 and it was supposed to be a live-action film. I was working with a writer and had many iterations and changes in the script, which changed the story a lot. But in the end, I ended up not working with the writer for the final version. When I finally received the funding to produce the film in April 2020, the pandemic had just started, so I had to adapt my plan to make it into a live-action film. That’s when I started to wonder if I could make it into a 3-D animation.
I had already interviewed many of the actors and wanted them to represent themselves as characters. I used software to create facial features using the photographs of the actors. For the main character, I wanted her to be a part of my process. I took on the role as if I was doing a performance piece.
I started writing the story after I encountered the stories about Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronic device manufacturing factory in China. The working conditions there were horrible and some of the workers committed suicide around 2010. This coincided with incidents at Samsung’s factories, in which workers were exposed to chemicals used in some of the electronic devices. Most of the workers were young women and many experienced miscarriages, unknown illnesses, and some even cancer. Some of them passed away due to that. In 2010, these two issues were happening at once and the way that these companies dealt with these problems were strikingly similar. Foxconn, for example, did not acknowledge that they knew about this, even though it would’ve been really hard for them not to. They were trying to push the responsibility of this elsewhere instead of addressing it.
Samsung similarly denied the correlation, saying that it’s difficult to track the illness because it develops over a long period of time and that these people already had conditions before they entered the company. The battle between the families of the victims and the company took 10 years, until finally the families were acknowledged and received compensation for the deaths of their family members. These kinds of stories really made me think a lot about the relationship between an individual and corporations that have their own systems of logic and operation. I think it’s almost impossible for individuals to understand or penetrate into the systems of corporations. Their stories melt away. As someone who has multiple electronic devices and uses them daily, I thought about the loss of the trace of the labor that goes into making those devices. The name value of an iPhone or MacBook has value in society and presents the corporation's image, hiding the other stories of the labor and effort that go into making those products. I was imagining a situation where this not only applies to electronic devices, but many other products that we use. We don't really see how these products are made or who made them. What if a product is recognizable as an individual's labor and time? In Lizardians, the product that Shelby produces is her own body parts.
Because we turned the film into 3D animation, there was another layer of dealing with the loss of human human touch and the labor behind the images. It was quite a lengthy process, taking about one year. Every scene was acted out via Zoom. I was directing them over Zoom and then using the footage for the final animation. I would say Lizardians is the most complex project that I've made.
I also noticed that in the Lizardians and Shangri-La exhibition brochures, you included Korean and an English translation. Why was it necessary for you to include translation and incorporate both languages?
I was born in South Korea, but I moved thirteen years ago. The exhibition took place in Korea, so most catalogs are bilingual. The funding came from Seoul Arts Foundation and the Harvard Film Study Center, which contributed to the bilinguality.
How to eat a bar of milk chocolate is one of your pieces that I felt was directly and overtly political. How did the inspiration to film that performance arrive?
That was quite a spontaneous performance piece. I found this chocolate bar at the JFK Airport on my way back to LA. At the time, in 2018, Donald Trump was the president and I just had to buy one because it was just such a bizarre product. The chocolate bar was an object that recorded the present time and I just wanted to get one for myself. I didn't know what to do with it. It was standing in my studio for a while and I was just thinking about it. I think I was renewing my visa back then and the process was quite stressful due to the increased anti-immigrant sentiment all over the news. I was building up frustration and anger to this figure and I thought of eating the image and what it represents. In a way, it’s a way to attack, but at the same time, I digested it because it's chocolate. I think that was kind of my way of dealing with what I was feeling at the time. Chocolate is a sweet thing, but the image on it contrasted with that sweetness. I think that contrast is interesting given the history of chocolate. Chocolate was used during war. M&Ms, for example, were invented as an emergency food that wouldn’t melt in soldiers’ pockets. Chocolate was also one of the first things that were introduced to Korea by the United States.
I’m also curious about the drawings you display on your website and the text that accompanies some of them. Are those drawings in series with one another? How does drawing play a role in your work in other media like performance and animation?
Some of them loosely connect to each other and some stand alone. Drawing and writing are how I start brainstorming my work. A lot of the drawings are expanded into stories and are snapshots of bigger narratives. Some of those I developed into film or video works. Drawings for me are more intuitive. They contain what I’m thinking about or what I'm encountering and experiencing.
I try to unpack my drawings to see if I can develop them into longer stories. I think drawing becomes the foundation for what I'm going to make next. Text is sort of hard to explain. As I draw, I write and sometimes they come together. For example, for the drawing of a woman giving birth to a wardrobe, I felt that I needed the sentence for the drawing to be complete.
You studied art at Yale, The Academy of Fine Arts in Germany, and Hongik University. Can you talk about what it was like learning in three different countries?
In Korea, I created a foundation for my artistic practice. I tried out everything. I was primarily doing painting, but most of my professors were male and in a certain age group, so they didn’t like my approach to painting. That made me pivot to non-painting mediums.
I think it has changed a lot now, but when I was in school, I still dealt with that conservatism as a woman. For example, one professor would say that most of us female students would marry and never make art again. That really got to me. I became very interested in social issues and what constructs personal experience, and what made me become who I am, or how I perceive other people or myself. I began searching for female artists who I could connect and look up to because of the lack of examples that I saw around. That led me to go to Germany. I lived in Germany as a child for three years, so it wasn't a totally foreign place. I had some unresolved feelings about living there. I had great, but also traumatic experiences and I wanted to revisit that. Germany also just has really nice art museums and support for artists. It’s a very artistically-rich country.
The German school system is totally different. The school I went to was almost like a residency. There were no formal classes and only a meeting once a week, so I had a lot of free time. This was really good for me because I didn't want classes at the time. I just wanted to make things and be in an artists’ space. It was more practical learning how to survive as an artist and be independent.
The reason why I came to the US was firstly because I received the Fulbright Scholarship. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford coming to the US. I had been feeling tired of feeling like an outsider in Europe. I think the diversity in the US, especially in cities like New York, made me think I could live and work here.
I was going to go to film school initially. All the other places that I applied to were film schools. But the reason why I went to the sculpture program was because of the similar freedom I craved when I was in Germany. Because of my multimedia tendencies—wanting to do sculpture, film, and performance—the cross-disciplinary and multimedia approach at their program seemed more fitting. My two years at Yale were great—I was exposed to screenwriting and other classes that I couldn't take when I was in Germany or in Korea. I had the opportunity to take the skills that I gained to come up with new ideas.
I found it really fascinating what you said in your interview with Women Cinemakers about the future of women in interdisciplinary art: “there are more female students than male students in art schools, while there are more male artists in museums and galleries. It means that the situation changes for the female students when they graduate…” Your work deals with otherness in a historical and personal context. How have you coped or responded to being othered in your artistic and non-artistic life?
It’s changing a lot. I’m seeing a lot of positive change both in the United States and in Korea. I’ve been teaching at Harvard for the past four years and I think I combat this by giving more opportunities to female students. I would never discriminate against male students, but I’m more conscious of the difficulties that female, nonwhite, or international students experience and I’m mindful of that when I’m teaching. Recommending students what to do and providing resources and information to them as much as possible is really important to me because it’s something I didn’t receive. That’s how I want to change this, on top of the work I make and stories I tell and uplift that raise awareness and promote underrepresented groups.
Your fellowship and your collaboration with the other Media Practice Fellows Margaret Rhee and Sohin Hwang sounds so exciting! How did this group come about? Do you all take inspiration from each other’s work?
That was from 2018 to 2019. I received the College Fellow in Media Practice Fellowship. We were the first cohort—Margaret, Sohin, and I—and we collaborated on many things, but most importantly, we held a panel on women, mobility, and technology to promote women in technology, because women are still underrepresented in technology. All of our work, even though we’re in different fields, address similar themes and concerns. It was very exciting that we crossed paths and had this opportunity.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Lex Brown is a multimedia artist who uses poetry and science-fiction to create an index for our psychological experiences as organic beings in a rapidly technologized world. Through humorous characters and expansive fictional worlds, her work opens up a place for spiritual examination. Brown has performed and exhibited work at the New Museum, the High Line, the International Center of Photography, Recess, and The Kitchen, REDCAT Theater, The Baltimore Museum of Art and at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. Brown holds degrees from Princeton University and Yale University. She was a 2021 recipient of the prestigious USA Fellowship and is the author of My Wet Hot Drone Summer (Badlands Unlimited) and Consciousness (GenderFail Press). Her podcast 1-800-POWERS available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
What I find really unique about your work is that you explore many mediums like drawing, painting, print, sculpture, installation, and video in a very balanced and cohesive way. In my experience as an artist, I’ve always felt a pressure to find a niche and stick with it, but you’ve successfully cultivated art in all of your desired mediums. Why do you choose to create in a range of forms and when did you understand you didn’t have to confine yourself to a single artistic practice?
I have always loved making things in a lot of different ways. Especially right now, as I'm visiting my parents, there are little traces of that around the house—little storybooks that I would create and little fragments of songs. I always liked making a lot of things, but I didn't know that that was a path until I went to college and started learning about conceptual art. It was very exciting for me as a young person to see so many different artists use different media and underscore the material or the interaction with viewers.
I've continued from there, developing ways to understand my own working in different media. On the one hand, it is kind of an outgrowth of whatever my expressive tendencies or intuition are at the moment—if I just feel like writing a song or making a drawing. But then, of course, I think about the viewer in the space. Using different media is a way for me to sculpt the experience of a space as a whole. I always think first and foremost about the space and about the interaction between the viewer and my work, which guides how I work in different media. It's also just dependent upon, as someone who works in performance and video, the way that different opportunities or collaborations come, which is slightly different than working in sculpture and working in painting. Some of it is dependent upon who I'm working with at the time and what ideas I have in my head for what's coming up next. Generally, as I'm working on a current body of work, I'm thinking about the ones that I want to make after that, and how I can already build in those connections as I'm working on the current body of work.
Do your procedures for two and three-dimensional work differ from video or performance work? Do you have a preference working in a certain medium?
I don't think I have a preference. Each medium has its own chemistry, its own sort of recipe. There's definitely a big difference working two-dimensionally compared to three-dimensionally. But as much as possible, I try to translate the same kind of affective mood that I have in my performance or video work into my two-dimensional work. When I'm writing something with characters, there's already so many different character voices and narratives in my head.
Writing is a huge part of my practice and cuts through everything. A lot of the drawings and paintings I've made are text-based. My favorite process to work the most in is music because the way music guides me through it. Audio really clicks with my brain, so I love to write music and work with other musicians. The most fun part of my process is when I get to collaborate with other musicians. Speaking musical language is very magical.
Video editing is also my favorite. I love the precision of it, but it can be very maddening. The result of a video is so gratifying because you can show a video anywhere. Each medium has its highs and its lows. For example, sculptures are so fun, but sculptures have a totally different life as a physical object. In comparison, time-based media doesn’t even exist until they're actually happening.
Speaking about editing, is editing something you had to self-learn?
I've had some teachers—the teacher who taught me the most about editing was Johannes DeYoung. But editing-wise, I've just edited for a long time and followed my sensibilities. Whenever I'm watching movies or television, I’m taking in everything, from the cuts, the cues, the setting. Over time, I'll return to certain compositions in editing. I tend to think about editing in terms of painting or collage.
That’s so interesting to think about editing as collaging. I loved the storytelling and satire in Communication and I’m so amazed that it’s a one-woman show. Can you walk me through the process of creating that piece?
Sometimes I start a performance piece with the costume before I write, but I’m not sure how Communication started. It's always hard to remember the beginning of something. I try to write scripts the same way that I write poetry, and then fit it into characters and develop some kind of plot. In this case, I knew I wanted to have a plot and I knew I wanted to be about communication. I think it started with that. The first section of the video is the characters sitting in the dark in the planetarium. The second kind of chapter is Wanda, the director of the planetarium and the third one is the character who's loosely based off of me, having a conversation on the phone.
The phone call is about a relationship that I had been in. And I was like, how do I process this relationship without it being directly about my relationship, because the relationship was like too much for me to process. That’s a strategy I sometimes use—fictionalizing my real life into a story. It also might have started with that monologue or that I knew I wanted a character to be named Aspen vendor boss.
My practice is very interdisciplinary, coming from all angles. I generate ideas from movement, from a costume, from sound. A monologue is pulling them together.
I do think of my writing as being more related to poetry—the way I write is really based on sound, rhythm, and beats. A character or a plot point is a beat. I'm trying my best to write something that's coherent but there's always that part of me that is wanting to try different angles because inspiration keeps coming.
Was Communication self-directed and self-filmed?
It was self directed, but I worked with Joe Short and Andrew Gitchel at Harvard. Joe was filming me and Andrew was doing the lights. They also built the set pieces. But I wrote everything. I’ve done other projects where other people are performing and I really like to work that way as well. But at that time, when I was creating Communication, it was the first body of work that I had made after quarantine. I wasn't in a place to work with a lot of people.
I felt like I really needed to kind of play around and do something that was loose, because when you're filming yourself and writing for yourself, you know exactly what you have to do, because you’re the performer. I know that if I'm the one who's performing it, I have no problem with doing 20 takes or trying 10 different versions. I have the freedom to be more flexible and experimental. If I have an idea or want to change the script, I don’t have to explain everything to others. That's the beauty of working solo.
I’m enthralled in the very idiosyncratic storytelling that characterizes your video and performance work. Where do you find inspiration for these stories?
I have so many sources of inspiration that it's hard to name a single one. I'm constantly watching TV shows—whether at my own house, or at somebody else's house, or even at the gas station. I love reading books and finding things on Pinterest. I take a lot from everything and my art is what comes out of it.
In terms of video, I'm really inspired by a lot of comedy films by Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy in the 80s. Those films weren’t only funny, but contained political commentary. I think, especially in the 80s, there was a critique of corporate culture. The films of that era are really influential to me in terms of how I think about the stories I'm telling and how I want them to register to an audience.
Another one of my greatest influences is Tracey Ullman, who had a sketch comedy show where she dressed up as different characters, some of whom people would now consider very problematic, but back in the 90s, we didn't even have the word problematic. Anna Deavere Smith’s work is also super influential to me. She is known for taking on different characters, generally characters people dislike, and reenacting their actions. Stew’s musical Passing Strange also really influenced me, inspiring Foccaciatown.
Most of my influences are in TV and film, but I’m also inspired by certain stage performers who are more experimental.
You frequently incorporate acting or music into your artwork. Do you have acting or music education?
I actually am not formally trained in music, but I’be written and performed many songs. I did have acting training throughout my life, mostly in clown.
Clown comes out of commedia dell'arte, which is Italian. And then all of the clown teachers that I have have come out of a they are from a pier goalie, a branch of clowning.
Clown is a performance approach that is about playing with the audience. Rather than playing to the audience, the clown plays with the audience. Sometimes you wear a red nose or a costume, but a lot of times you don't. It's really about finding very universal and existential humor about life's highly profound and dramatic moments.
In contrast to Communication, in Animal Static, you worked with a cast of actors. What was directing that like?
It was really, really fun. I’m actually editing another collaborative project called Glass Eye, which I started in 2020. It's so fun working with other performers and with friends. For the Inside Room, I also worked with friends and other participants in the Recess Arts program. It's fun to write something and then just see what people do with it and how they improvise. Increasingly, I enjoy that more than performing myself. There are times when I really like to perform, but when it comes to the camera, I really have fun being behind the camera.
You also host a podcast, 1-800-Powers! What prompted you to begin this podcast, what do you hope to accomplish with it, and where do you see it moving in the future?
I started my podcast for so many reasons. I think first and foremost, because I really missed the performances that I was doing where I could talk to and with the audience. With COVID, the frequency and the length of my performances changed and I wanted some way to work that muscle and also practice writing.
I just released the first episode with guest Delali Ayivor. It's a great way to have conversations with people who I respect and admire and share those conversations. I love working in audio and storytelling so much.
I don't want to say too much because I don't want to jinx myself or anything. In the future, I would love to have more guests and to incorporate a variety show format. I would love to have syndicated segments on it, where somebody else would produce their own segment which becomes part of the episode.
Eventually, in my life, I'd love to have a TV show. I have a lifelong desire to enter the world of television. Having a podcast is also a way for me to write episodes and just kind of finesse the format.
But for this first year, I told myself to just see where it goes. It doesn't matter how long it takes me and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Whatever happens happens. It’s been great. I also love that podcasts are something that can be shared and listened to in the future, so I think about it as this addendum to my practice.
That's so exciting! I hope you get a TV show. I love what you said in your conversation with Audra Wist back in 2015— “love as the essence of the universe, which is beautiful, but not peaceful. Each person is a universe, and you have to come to an understanding. Maybe real love is unexpectedly coming to the same definition of what love is.” You also read a beautiful passage from all about love by bell hooks in a podcast episode. Has your definition of love changed in the past years? How does love influence your work?
I think I would still agree with that quote. I don't know if my understanding of love has changed. I think my relationship to love and my expectations of the type of love that I encounter with others has shifted. During the pandemic, there was a very intense time of intimacy, whether that was feeling extremely isolated or becoming closer with people in your life. I don't think of love as a primal motivating force in my work as much as I used to. I’m still sharing my universal love with the audience when I’m performing—it's not that I've become cynical or jaded or something.
Love is still in my work, but I became a lot more interested in craft and focused on the practical side of love. Love to me is more action-based than thought-based.
I really feel like I'm in a zone of action. My core values are still the same. I still want people to feel magic and feel transported and transcendental through my work. Through personal experiences, I have more experiential knowledge of the boundaries of love. But then, love, it's never-changing. It's never going to go away, especially between some of my friends who are such amazing friends. I’ve been thinking and feeling more about friendship, which to me is the ultimate love. To be able to be friends with your family or to also be able to be friends with somebody you love romantically is very important. Love shows up in projects like Animal Static, where I work with friends.
Lastly, I have to ask about your books, Consciousness and My Wet Hot Drone Summer, which I feel are so distinct from one another. I’m fascinated by how Consciousness transcends form and tradition. Why did you decide to culminate your work into a book? Are you looking to publish more books in the future?
Definitely! I have so many ideas. For Consciousness, Be Oakley, who runs GenderFail, a small publishing house contacted me and the book grew from there. It seemed like the right time. I had been working in a certain way and didn't have a documentation of my songs and projects. The book seemed like a great way to do that because the amazing thing about books is that they travel around the world. People would take photos of my books and send them to me. It’s also such a treat to do readings. I love working in books and text. There’s a couple of books that I want to write, but I just have to sit down and write them.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Steven Espada Dawson is from East Los Angeles and lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Fellow in Poetry at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. The son of a Mexican immigrant, he is a 2021 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow. His poems appear/appear soon in AGNI, Guernica, Poetry, and the Best New Poets and Pushcart Prize anthologies.
I’m in awe of so many of the metaphors in your pieces. I remember reading “What I Hate Most About Mom” for the first time and being stunned by the lines “I see death everywhere. / A banana left / to the sun is a bat’s / cadaver.” What’s your process like for finding and crafting comparisons?
I wrote that poem at a moment in my life of terrible negativity bias. When my speaker says, "I see death everywhere," it's because I saw death everywhere. The poet William Matthews writes, "I'm in these poems / because I'm in my life," and that rings loud and close for me.
"What I Hate Most About Mom" was built around that bat image, actually. It's a real thing I witnessed. I remember seeing a banana peel someone threw on the ground in the parking lot outside my apartment. For whatever reason I didn't pick it up and went on to lock myself inside for a couple days. When I went out again it startled me. It was black and shriveled and very bat-like to me. I think our involuntary responses to images tell us a lot about how we're feeling. It's a kind of value-neutral alchemy where the world helps us understand ourselves better.
I think I'm really no more witness to the world than any other creative person. What I will say is that I'm really good at stopping what I'm doing and writing things down. Sometimes I'm too good: interrupting conversations and phone calls. My friends are not huge fans of this approach.
Yes, I relate to that so much! Being a writer is so much more than the act of writing—it’s also observing and irking your friends. Where are you recently turning to for inspiration?
Thank you for that question. I haven’t been reading much of anything these last couple weeks, as I’m currently moving across the country. I did recently discover the work of Jay Hopler, and it's been keeping me afloat in all this uprooting. I feel like his work asks you to pinky swear with uncertainty in a way I haven't read exactly before. That gesture is a huge comfort to me right now. Here's the poem that initially got me hooked: "self-portrait not looking" (originally posted on Twitter by Brian Tierney).
Aside from that, I've had the pleasure of seeing a lot of bathroom graffiti at truck stops on this 20 hour drive. It's tough to pick a favorite, but there was one on the bathroom wall of John's Food Center in Topeka, Kansas that really got me. Someone wrote "God is Love," and another person carved some additions, turning it into "God is Lava."
Thank you for recommending that piece, it has such meticulous wordplay. In the same vein, every one of your poems also feels so carefully and thoughtfully crafted. Can you talk about how much time you spend on a piece, how you know it’s finished, and how you decide it’s ready to submit to publications?
I spend a lot more time "preparing" to write than I do actually writing. I'm diligent about archiving what I observe/experience, and that makes the actual writing process easier. I also daydream a lot about what any particular poem is going to look like on the page, so when it finally happens I've got a shape and line breaks in mind. Sometimes it feels like drawing a picture from memory. Then, I'll sit down at my laptop or my phone. (Side note: I wish I was cool enough to hand write my poems for cool-mysterious-poet points, but my handwriting is terrible.) The writing process might take a single draft or twenty after that. The poem you referenced earlier, "What I Hate Most About Mom," was written in 15-minutes in the bathroom of Major Restaurant in Indianapolis. A poem with similar themes, "Elegy for the Four Chambers of My Mother's Heart," took a couple years of drafts to get right--and I'm still not totally convinced.
I'm finished with a poem when I feel like I can't learn anything from it anymore. Publishing is a byproduct I'm thankful for, but I write more to learn about myself, how I'm feeling, how I want to feel; if others find the poems helpful in learning about themselves, that's a huge bonus, and I'm grateful for their reading. When a poem has taught me what it can, it's "finished." Something that has taken a lot of pressure off of me is the realization that any particular poem might have multiple lives. A poem you wrote three years ago but never pushed on might find you while shuffling through your notes. It might turn into a brand new thing with wings, might be the centerpiece of your new collection. A poem you got published in a journal might look totally different in your book. Different title, form, ending. Might look a little different in an anthology down the road. Anyway, I don't think a poem is a fixed artifact, and that realization has helped me set more poems down, pick new ones up.
No way, 15 minutes! I could think about the last lines for hours. That’s such a beautiful way to put revision. I’m thinking of what Ocean Vuong said in Lit Hub— “The poem is like a tree, and the book is a photograph of the tree. You take a photograph of the tree, but the next day, the tree has new cells. The next year, it has new branches. We have to make peace with the fact that a book is actually just a photo album, and that the organic psychic life of the poem is already growing somewhere else, somewhere inside you. And we pin it down.” I think you’ve pinned down your elegy series—“Elegy for the Four Chambers of My Heart/My Mother’s Heart/My Brother’s Heart”—so well. How does each elegy evolve from or interact with one another? Are you currently writing more elegies?
I love that quote from Vuong, woah. Book as a photo album!! Thank you for sharing that.
I've always been drawn to elegies. I think writing them teaches us the details of our love for someone. That idea of "love" can get really vague sometimes, so abstract in its own hugeness, and writing elegies can force you to point at the specific, not the boundaries of some idea. I've been thinking about writing another "Elegy for the Four Chambers..." poem for my biological father who was never in the picture. I think it'd have to be an erasure poem because of that, and I haven't found exactly the right text that needs to be erased.
The series you point to was especially difficult to get down because of the circumstances each elegy orbits. My brother really is/was an addict who disappeared suddenly 13 years ago. My mom really is at the end of her beautiful and difficult life. As someone who often struggles to manage depression and suicidal ideation, I sometimes feel at the end of my own life. I'm writing these elegies for people that exist at the fringes of their living. In this space, the poems feel like both levies and testimonies. Something to build up, to prepare for the grieving to come. Something that helps me understand the value of what will be lost.
You teach writing for the Austin Library Foundation, Austin's Youth Poet Laureate Program, and Ellipsis Writing! What’s your best piece of writing advice?
I'm lucky to work with a ton of incredible writers. Seriously, my students inspire me to write more than books do. I find that a lot of my students, though, are writing specifically to publish their work/submit to contests/etc. This is one of myriad weird ways capitalism has t-boned art for many people. It's become just another talent for people to prove their academic worthiness or something. I've been there--and in some ways I still am--and I respect the hustle, really. But I think that forced mentality is a good way to keep writing the same poems over and over. It's an easy way to plateau your craft and, more importantly, the figuring out you're doing every time you write. I think, if they can do it safely, new writers should write towards discomfort. Take risks with your work while you're still chisling out your voice. When you eventually publish at your favorite places, that extra work will be well taken by readers.
You mentioned in The Rumpus that you’re finishing a manuscript. Can you tell us more?
I'm in the final stages of my first full-length collection, tentatively titled Elegy, Pending. It's a book about a lot of things but primarily a family caught in the liminal space just before death. I'm currently at work on the last poem (fingers crossed) that the book needs to feel like itself. I'll be spending the next nine months as a poetry fellow at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, where I plan to finish this collection, work my way into a second, and begin a super-secret nonfiction project I've been daydreaming into existence.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Nora Claire Miller is a poet from New York City. Nora is the author of the chapbook LULL (2020). Their poems have appeared or are forthcoming in FENCE, Bennington Review, Washington Square Review, Bat City Review, Tagvverk, and other places. The editor-in-chief of Ghost Proposal, Nora earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a BA from Hampshire College.
Your poems are immensely fun and so different from the overwhelmingly archaic poetry that is taught in school classrooms. When did you realize that poetry can be more than traditional writing about serious subject matters and can exist outside of print form?
Thanks so much for the compliment—that means a lot! It's an interesting question. Working in visual and hybrid forms has always felt, for me, like a way to express my frustration with traditional structures. I think the first time I intentionally wrote a visual poem was in sixth grade. My English teacher had asked our class to write and curate a portfolio of ten poems. By curate, I think she actually meant we should type them up and print them out in a nice font. But it was the end of the school year and I was sick of Microsoft Word and following instructions. The teacher hadn't requested a particular format for our poems, so I gathered broken objects from around my family's apartment—bent eyeglasses, an ancient Nokia cell phone, an old wooden clock—and wrote poems on them in Sharpie. Instead of a report, I handed my teacher a large plastic bag full of sculptures. To my utter surprise, my teacher said the poems were "unique" and did not send me to detention.
Ten years later, I started my MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I was going through a period of creative flux, and wasn't sure what kinds of poems I wanted to be writing. Everything I put on the page felt wrong, so I would revise my poems until there was practically no substance left. All of my poems were very short and no one could make any sense of them, not even me. One night, frustrated during an especially challenging revision, I printed out a copy of my poem and deep-fried it on the stove. I took a photograph of this deep-fried poem and submitted it, with no explanation, to that week's workshop packet. Even though I was an adult in an MFA program at that point, I was still a little surprised when I didn't get in any trouble. After that, something broke open for me. I stopped being so afraid of what other people thought of me, and I began to recognize poetry as something that could be physical.
Thank you for sharing that, Nora. The story with your English teacher is so endearing. Is that deep-fried poem part of the ones that appeared in phoebe? You titled them “Deep Friend Poem #63” and “Deep Fried Poem #64.” Did you create a series of deep-fried poems? If so, are there sixty-plus more?
There are so, so many more—in all, I've deep-fried many hundreds of poems at this point. I have found that like any poem-writing, it's necessary to deep-fry poems in bulk. I am working on a book of full-color photographs of deep-fried poems. In assembling it, I've had to fry far more poems than I have ultimately ended up with. I've found that only half of the poems I deep-fry turn into objects worth recording or preserving, and of those, many break or decay before I can photograph them properly. Then, there are the deep-fried poems that look great in real life but just don't photograph well. It's a tricky business!
Wow, that's amazing! I’m so captivated by the uniqueness and ingenuity of each of your works. Do you establish the form of a poem before or after it’s written?
To me, the form of a poem is inextricable from its content. If the exterior shape of the poem changes, the language is altered too—either because I have to change the words to fit the particularities of the new shape, or else because their new orientation changes the way they look, sound, and feel.
I often shift my poems’ physical shapes as part of my process of revision, because it helps me understand and adjust the ways the words are working together. I don’t think of a poem as finished until I find its final shape.
How do you decide if a piece will be visual? Do you approach visual versus non-visual work differently?
That’s an interesting question. I think there's an artificial line between the idea of a visual poem and a "non-visual" one. At the end of the day, all poems that are written for the page have shapes and forms we can see. Even if a poet thinks they're making few visual choices in their writing, there's inherent visual work just in placing a poem on a page—patterning of letters, the places we break lines, the fonts we use, the punctuation, the capitalization, caesura. For performance poetry, slam poetry, sound poetry, and other forms that involve the human voice, there's a physicality to that too: sound waves are physical shapes that we create and share with our bodies.
That being said, as much as the delineation between visual and non-visual poetry feels arbitrary, it is (like many delineations) nonetheless real in its consequences: there are poems people would call visual art and there are poems people would call "regular poems" and there are things people would call "music" and these things get treated very differently by artists and by poets. The work I make often falls into a muddy category—too cross-disciplinary to be considered "real poetry," but too rooted in language to be considered "real art."
I don't really care what my work gets called. Personally, I call all of my works poems, and I approach all of my poems in much the same way: I write something in a shape meant to communicate something. Sometimes a poem begins as a drawing in a notebook, or a screenshot on my phone. Sometimes the visual aspects creep in later, in revision, as I get to know my poem and what it wants a little better.
There are, of course, differences between different writing processes. For instance, I recently wrote a poem with a sharpie on the surface of a lava lamp's glass, the text wending around the bottle in a spiral. Unlike a poem typed on a computer, the poem I wrote was not one it would be possible to revise later: it was permanent and thus frozen in time. Reading it requires a more physical action than a poem printed on a page or a screen: the reader has to walk around the lava lamp in a circle in order to read the text in "order."
The lava lamp poem sounds brilliant—since it’s three-dimensional, how do you intend it to be exhibited? Would printing it in a traditional literary journal do it justice? I’m also wondering if you have a background in visual arts or design because you frequently play with font and form in your work.
Thank you! It was a lot of fun to make. There's something that feels almost wrong about writing on a lava lamp, and I think that’s what gives the process its power. I have taken art classes on and off over the years but don’t have much formal training—at least none that would teach me to do the sort of work I do. Instead, I’ve learned by doing, and by asking the visual artists in my life for advice when I want to do something I don’t know how to.
As far as publishing goes, it’s a complicated question. I had the opportunity to show the lava lamp in an art show recently. Art shows or in-person events often become the avenue for works like lava lamp poems or deep-fried poems, because it gives people a chance to fully experience the piece as a material object. On the other hand, if a poem can only be read in-person, it changes the work because it changes the work’s audience. Lit mags, especially online ones, expand access.
I recently became Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal, a journal and chapbook press. Our editorial team is working hard to make dimensional, visual, and multidisciplinary poetry more available to a wider audience.
Congrats on becoming Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal! How has leading the journal been and where do you envision it going?
Thank you! It's been an exciting journey. I first connected with Ghost Proposal when they published my chapbook LULL in 2020. I was deeply grateful to get to work with a press that valued experimental and visual work, and fell in love with their past chapbook catalog and issues. So when the former editors decided to pursue other projects and asked me if I'd like to take over as Editor-in-Chief, of course I said yes!
I am joined by two incredible co-editors, Alyssa Moore and Kelly Clare. We're dedicated to furthering Ghost Proposal's mission of publishing cross-disciplinary work that resists categorization by form and genre. We're especially interested in work that sits at the intersection of poetry and visual art. We recently launched the Ultraslant Prize, an annual award for one work of visual poetry; each year, the winning poem will be printed as a pamphlet. There aren't many prizes for this type of work and it's been incredible to be in the position to create opportunities.
I'm so happy about the work Ghost Proposal does to uplift visual poetry. You also directed a film, Egg Cream! How did you get into directing? Do you see yourself creating more films in the future?
Egg Cream was a film that I made in collaboration with my dad Peter Miller, who is a documentary filmmaker. We started filming when I was eleven years old and finished it over a decade later. The project began, as most things do, with a question: I wanted to know the story behind the chocolate egg cream, a soda drink that is said to have originated among Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Despite its name, the egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream—just milk, chocolate syrup, and seltzer.
To better understand the origins and significance of the egg cream, my dad and I took his video camera and wandered New York City, where we lived, trying as many egg creams as we could. We interviewed deli workers, food historians, relatives, and even my Hebrew school teacher. When I was thirteen or so, we put the project on hold, and the tapes sat forgotten in a box for about a decade. When I was in graduate school, we uncovered them and, with the help of the extraordinary film editor Amy Linton, we finally finished the film.
Though documentary is not my usual medium, I realized, working on Egg Cream, that the process of telling a story—the inquiry, the conversations, the research, the stitching together—is very similar from one medium to another. As a writer, I love studying films as much as I loved making them—I'm drawn to how a film can weave together elements of image, language, and sound all at once. I think poets can learn a lot from watching (and making) movies.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
'Andrea Hasler was born in 1975 in Zürich, Switzerland, and currently lives and works in London, UK. She holds an MA Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art & Design. Her wax and mixed media sculptures are characterized by a tension between attraction and repulsion. Her work depicts the emotional body, often working with skin as the physical element that divides the Self from the other, as well as the potential container for both and what happens if you open up those boundaries. Hasler’s work dissects moral ideas generated by the media and deeply entrenched concepts in our society without reassembling the dissected, separated and ornamented pieces into a new or different whole--thus confronts the viewer with his or her own feelings of attraction and repulsion.
Solo projects include ‘Burdens of Excess’ Gusford Los Angeles/USA, Irreducible Complexity’ NextLevel-Projects, London/UK and ‚Full fat or semi-skinned?’ Bon Gallery, Stockholm/Sweden. Hasler won the 2014 Arts Council England funded Greenham Common Commission and created a large site specific installation which gained much press interest. Hasler chairs artist talks at Next Level-Projects, lectures at various institutions including the Sotheby's Institute of Art.
In 2018, her work was include in the exhibition ‘Ethics, Excess and Extinction’ at El Paso Museum, Texas/USA. She was an ‘Artist-Resident’ at ‘Verbier 3D Foundation’, Verbier, Switzerland, where she created two sculptures for their Alpine Sculpture Park, she completed other artist-residency at Next Level Projects/Bahahmas and at Chisenhale, London/UK. In 2019, Andrea Hasler created a new body of work during her artist-residency at 'Verbier 3D Time + Space' in New York , which resulted in a solo show at
'Verbier 3D Foundation’s' new project space in Soho/New York City/US. Most recent projects include the group show 'Raum der Lusten' at Raum, Utrecht/NL together with Atelier van Lieshaut and Maarten Baas and 'Body-Works' a site specific installation with 'Wie wars mal mit' in Basel/Switzerland and Tagazout/Morocco in April 2022. Future projects include a site-specific installation in Marfa, Texas planned for Autumn 2023.
Your art is marked by dichotomy—by the collaboration between enticement and disgust, luxury and grotesque. How did you develop your current style of wax sculptures?
My practice centers around depictions of the emotional body—that which is not defined by the physical body but rather captures emotions—and I construct immersive installations and site-specific sculptures that are characterized by a tension between attraction and repulsion, something that can be aesthetically desirable yet revolting at the same time.
Focusing on the psychological need to belong and emotional links to the “abject,” my work confronts viewers with their own corporeality. My interest lies in exploring the boundary between the Self and the “Other” (and how blurry that has become in our social-media-obsessed world), focusing on the skin as the physical element that segregates the two as well as the potential container for both. My work plays with visions of the future, scenes of surgical fetishes and glamor and unsettle the viewer with carefully staged and naturalistic wax reproductions of human organs in the form of luxury fetishes. The viewer is confronted with contradictions where desire and attraction are hovering back and forth to disgust and repulsion.
A long-term subject in my work is the notion of our obsession with luxury, particularly
luxury-travel in contrast to global migration. Why do we travel, what are we seeking, how do we portray this “Other”, and which “tribe” do we aspire to belong to? My work poses new questions in relation to the craze for luxury and status: How much can our bodies take? Will we sacrifice everything for beauty? What kind of person do you wish to be tomorrow? How much money will we spend to maintain our carefully curated and “filtered” version of ourselves?
I honestly think that one day, it will not be the Rolex on your wrist that will be the ultimate luxury accessory, but kidneys embellished with diamonds. As soon as the exterior has been completely molded, plastic surgery of an internal organ is its logical consequence. This is the peak of the exclusive: The intervention is not visible--or only so on an x-ray! I live in a nomadic society, and I think the brands we choose are a reflection of the "tribe" we want to belong to. More importantly, they help us to become identified by other nomads, to become part of a group. This notion is driven by a sense of desperately wanting to belong that the philosopher Julia Kristeva links with our desire to recreate the symbiotic mother-infant relationship which stems from the consequent tragedy of the sense of loss when one realizes that they are an independent subject. So really, to put it simple: I think the craze for luxury is a longing for one’s nurturing mother.
That’s such a fascinating way to think about the luxury craze. How did your interest in the body and luxury first develop? How did your art education play a role in supporting these interests?
Growing up in Switzerland, famous for its understated take on everything, I was not prepared for the brashness and logo obsession in relation to luxury goods that I encountered when moving to London to study Fine Art. Long limited-edition waiting lists and queuing around the block for a pair of shoes were all new to me. So initially, my long-term project Burdens of Excess started by analyzing my own growing obsession with these items and by analyzing the emotional process of purchasing these goods. I became fascinated with the psychological aspect of consumerism, and its emotional link to “abject,” something that is aesthetically desirable, yet revolting: where the viewer’s attraction is replaced by repulsion.
The accessories I deconstruct in Burdens of Excess are all items that I desire as a consumer myself. I lust after them for months and then I cut them up in the most cathartic way. My scarification of personal items started as an art student, as I simply didn’t have the budget to invest in new "material," so I would sit in my flat, look around and wonder what I could "sacrifice" next. The sacrifice element has by now turned into part of the process, the lusting and waiting for a particular fashion item, the excitement of purchasing and then deconstructing it, which I often document. My work is not at all a critique of the luxury industry, it’s an attempt to analyze the emotions behind it, starting with my own.
In Burdens of Excess, I play with the aesthetic code of a chic, seductive luxury boutique setting with its black walls, glittery flooring and the way the organ objects are presented on plinths, hermetically sealed behind glass boxes. So in a paradox way, the deconstructed luxury items are back to where they belong. The subject matters of both the desire for luxury items as well as the darker side of plastic surgery’s intestine-liposuction filled accessories are both synonymous with what glamor/status represent for me—the desire to be accepted, to be part of the "tribe". Which brings us back to the "tribe" and the sense of so desperately wanting to belong. As certainties that used to shape the world around us are disappearing, I think hyperconsumerism has replaced religion in many ways. It gives people a sense of togetherness by displaying codes of where we ‘see’ ourselves associated with in an increasingly non-committal society that wants to leave all options open. Hyperconsumerism is fueled by brands, as we often form deep attachments to product brands, which affect people’s identity, and which pressure customers to buy and consume their goods. Another characteristic of hyperconsumerism is the constant pursuit of novelty, encouraging consumers to buy new and discard the old (no commitment required), particularly in fashion, where the product life cycle can be very short, sometimes just weeks. I believe that this endless cycle taps into an archaic feeling of emptiness with the hidden promise to gain a feeling of completeness with yet another purchase. It is built on selling an empty promise, that can not be fulfilled and only further fuels our desire for the next limited edition item in the hope that this will be the one that makes us feel at ease and secure in a world where many know certainties have split apart and become blurred lines. As I mentioned in the earlier question, in psychoanalysis, this triggered feeling relates to a child’s first painful realization that they are not part of a symbiotic cycle with their mother, the realization of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. Julia Kristeva and I believe hyperconsumerism can be traced to fueling exactly this feeling, which I find incredibly fascinating.
I love your piece “Matriarch.” The symbolism is exceptional. Is your process for creating work when you’re commissioned different than when you create on your own?
My research and working process is very different when working on a commission as there are the parameters set by the brief that comes with it, whereas working on my own projects is much freer. That being said, I do like the challenge of the “restrictions” that can come with a commission and ways to work around it and find solutions that fit with my process.
“Embrace the Base” was a Arts Council England-funded commission to create a new body of work for Greenham Common. Greenham Common is a former American army base in the United Kingdom and “The Matriarch” was one of the sculptures that I created for it. ‘Embrace the Base’ takes the Greenham Common’s history as a starting point, particularly the Women’s Peace Camp that has been situated there for almost 20 years to protest nuclear weapons stored on site. This was the longest peaceful women’s protest in history and they succeeded—in the end, the site got decommissioned to store nuclear weapons! One of the banners at the time had the slogan “Embrace the Base” which became the title of my installation.
For this commission, I took a political element as the starting point and related it back to body politics. Metaphorically I took the notion of the tents, which were on site during the Women’s Peace Camp, as the container for emotions and “humanized” these elements to create emotional surfaces: the nylon tents fabric are used as a metaphor for skin, as the containers to project emotions. The women’s protest was driven by the fearful impact the nuclear threat would have on them and on their children. The large igloo tent, “The Matriarch” represents the place where this fear manifests itself. In the core of the female body, the womb and “Next of Kin” symbolizes its child counterpart. The three intestine figures explore the notion of a nuclear aftermath.
One of the large American culture websites featured this work and described it as ‘meat’, which resulted in hundreds of people leaving comments mourning dead animals, when in fact the flesh-like appearance is made from wax! I take it as a compliment for my practice that people mistake it for something else.
“The Matriarch” was installed on the actual site at Greenham Common where the protesters' tents were pitched years before. This particular sculpture marked the beginning of an important shift in my work towards site-specific outdoors installation or interventions. It extended my way of creating artwork beyond classic gallery spaces in mind and made me reassess the way we exhibit art in surroundings we don’t expect, and how different people engage with it.
This project formed the basis of an extensive research of specific locations that challenge, interpret, and inform my work. This new way of working integrated a fresh direction of my own identity and creativity into my work and opened up communications and collaborations with other artists and organizations, which continues to shape and inform my work
The project that closely followed “Embrace the Base” was “Perishable Goods,” which was installed on the mountain above the Swiss Alpine resort of Verbier at the Alpine Sculpture Park of the Verbier 3D Foundation. “Perishable Goods” is a pallet of compressed flesh (again made from wood/wax/resin) bulging out, yet held together and at the same time, and adorned with luxury chains. With the impression of the work being crudely dropped on top of the mountain, installed for 5 years, the work suggests the intensity and intrusion of the change of population in Verbier in the winter months whilst referencing the stark contrast of the need for emergency aid food pallets dropped off in disaster zones. The sculpture slowly decayed over the period it was installed, like meat: The top fleshy wax layer melted away with the sun and revealed the underneath, more fleshy intestine layer which is resin and the gold chains started to rust.
The photographs of your sculptures on the Swiss Mountains and Moroccan Sahara Desert evoke brilliant juxtaposition. How do you decide which sites are suitable for your artwork to inhabit?
It’s a mixture of sourcing locations that fascinate me and liaising with arts organizations that could be interested in the project. For example, with ‘Perishable Goods Verbier’, I was invited to do an artist residency by the Verbier 3D Foundation. As part of my residency, I spent 6 weeks in the mountain resort of Verbier/Switzerland and one thing that struck me was that in the off-season, 4000 people are living there and in the winter season, the population increases to 40,000 people. I started to think about this number of luxury tourists…like they were compressed flesh which then resulted in creating "Perishable Goods" on site.
During my time in Verbier, I also created another sculpture called "Avant/Aprés" which consists of a red carpet scenario in the mountain landscape with no indication which boundary is the VIP side to aspire to be or which one we may be held back from. The work touches on the seclusion, exclusivity, and hybridity of the mountain town of Verbier, famous for attracting luxury tourists. In relation to the "Mutation" theme of the artist residency; the work points at the lack of actual physical mutation and the desire to be different or transform. The intestine-like rope made of resin and wax, references the non-physical aspect of desire, highlighting the fact that underneath we are all the same.
As I was looking for suitable locations to install the work, the idea for a video-installation developed and I filmed a video-piece depicting bizarre imagery of an unsuitably dressed luxury tourist in an evening dress and high heels walking around the Swiss mountain endlessly searching for the VIP area atop a Swiss mountain, lugging gold poles, a red carpet and an "intestine" rope. The video-installation Avant/Aprés embodies the desire to belong and aspirations of VIP-ness - the endless search for inclusion, climbing to reach the peak and the accompanying sense of exhaustion. The piece manifests the fundamental psychological need to belong, and the constructed culture of the exclusiveness of the ‘VIP’ which goes back to wanting to belong to a ‘tribe’, in this instance a very exclusive one.
I developed the idea for “Perishable Goods No.5” two years later. In this instance, I sourced the desert location myself as I was looking for a site that stood in total juxtaposition to the Swiss Mountains. I worked with Next Level Projects, an arts organization here in the UK, to help with the logistics of installing the work in the Erg Chebbi desert in Morocco. Of course, with the desert heat, the wax melted away much quicker than its counterpart in Switzerland. Both locations are in stark contrast to each other, and both represented different challenges, but I was equally happy with how the work inhabits either of the two locations and how the surroundings inform its meaning differently.
All art, especially yours, elicits some sort of response from viewers. What is your relationship to how your artwork is received, especially when you rely on the emotions of disgust and appeal? Is it the artist’s responsibility to care how their work is received?
Of course, I want people to engage with the work but I have no desire to have control over how people respond to the work and it is very interesting for me to witness people’s reactions. The reactions vary greatly—there are people who can’t look at these objects or feel nauseous. It’s fascinating how people are often repulsed by the abject quality of a sculpture, but also at the same time really want to touch it. It is that grey zone where desire and repulsion hover back and forth that I’m attempting to capture with my work.
You’ve also created gold medical instruments that are all distorted in some way. What was the inspiration behind them? Do you see yourself working in materials other than wax?
The gold medical instruments series work with the notion of the foreign intrusive pain-inducing object that becomes the body itself as it blurs the lines between inside/outside of the body and Self & Other. I particularly looked at medical instruments that are used during childbirth and how to “emotionalize” these cold, stark metal objects in contrast to the soft fluid body they invade, such as forceps that were first developed in the 1600s and where the design remains largely the same. I gold dipped these sculptures to play on the notion of desire and luxury, so for example ‘The Bvlgari Edition Forceps’ are adorned with diamantes and a tiny little luxury brand logo.
Sometimes wax isn’t suitable for a specific commission, so I now often work with resin and incorporate less wax, or just an outer layer of wax.
Saying that, wax is still my favorite material to sculpt with—it allows for flexibility and there is never an endpoint, so a piece can “rest” for months before I warm it up to work on it again. Years later, I still enjoy the ritual element of melting wax: the slow process, building up layer after layer.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Noor Hindi (she/her/hers) is a Palestinian-American poet and reporter. Her book, Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow is out with Haymarket Books. She is a 2021 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @MyNrhindi.
Hi Noor! Congrats on Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow.! It’s so propulsive and unflinching. I pause at lines and wow. I want start by asking you about “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” which so well-deservingly blew up last year. What was your reaction to the attention the piece received?
First of all, thank you so much for reading the collection and spending time with the poems.
I think the biggest motivator for me in writing the book was seeking community and connection. I felt so connected to the authors of the collections that I read when I was studying and exploring poetry, so I'm really glad to hear that the book resonated with you so much.
“Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” was a wild experience. I didn't expect the poem to blow up the way it did. But I think because of the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and Israel threatening to and evicting families living in Sheikh Jarrah, there was a lot of anger and tiredness in our country and worldwide and the poem resonated with many people. And the coolest thing was just to be able to reach so many people and respond to them and say thank you and hear about their personal reading of it and how it connected to them.
You end ““Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” with the line “One day, I’ll write about the flowers like we own them.” Those words are shattering. They’re especially shattering because that day may never come, or when it does, we’ll be long gone. How do you assess poetry's capability as activism and advocacy when so much feels out of our control?
A protest poem is not a protest. It's not a burning of a police building. It's not a change of legislation. But what poetry does is give voice to the people who are most impacted by violence, by colonialism, by climate disaster. For example, rather than somebody reporting on an event that impacts people, a poet is able to just write their own story, document their own history, and be a voice that connects to other people like them. For me, emerging into the literary scene reading queer Palestinian and Arab poets, I knew that I wasn't the only one and felt less lonely and alienated. I hope that by writing my own poems, I’m reaching audiences that need to be reached to empower them.
There’s humor blended into the poems in Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow. I loved the lines “I assimilated so much / I drink Diet Coke / at the rate of a middle-aged / white woman” in “Broken Light Bulb Flickering Away” and the sarcasm in “Self Portrait as Arab/Muslim Teenager in an All-White High School.” But I felt something bitter about the humor—it becomes a coping mechanism against the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, against America. Can you speak more about the humor in the book?
I really believe in humor's ability to access hurt and make a point without feeling too heavy. It’s a useful mechanism. People don't expect when you're writing about immigration, sexuality or sexual violence, for there to be an element of humor. But I think in our human existence, there are varying emotions and ways of coping that I often don't see represented in poems that are tackling these tougher subjects. Personally, I think entering the poems with a certain level of light-heartedness allows me to access my own voice to be able to talk about difficult topics without coming to the page with this sense of heaviness and dread.
Another topic you navigate is your difficult relationship with journalism. Does observing the violence, voyeurism, and dehumanization of journalism prompt you to approach your journalism differently?
I was on this crusade for years when I was doing journalism to convert more reporters to poets, and or at least get them to read poetry. Because so often reporters are interviewing subjects—people who are experiencing violence or racism—but we are still the gatekeepers of their voice. We’re choosing which quotes to pick. Sometimes we're using their narrative, their story, and their voice to explain a larger phenomena. Poetry, on the other hand, is a person’s unfiltered voice and experience. It’s documentary.
Solmaz Sharif’s work, for example, incorporates family, history, and photography. Poetry is so empathetic and attuned to the heart, but reporting doesn't always feel that way. In reporting, there's a structure and an argument that’s presented through statistics or a study. I think it's worth reading a person's perspective for the sake of reading it and experiencing that story first-hand and sitting with their art. I also think that poetry taught me to be in touch with feelings and sit through the pain. When you're reporting, you're not always able, or you don't have the time to process everything that you're seeing, which ultimately does a disservice to what you publish.
Despite your critique of journalism, you still pursue journalism. Can you describe that dissonance?
I actually published my last story in August of 2021, so we're nearing roughly a year since I’ve stopped reporting. I’m working in communications and marketing now and I haven't returned to reporting. I burnt out. But it's something that I continue to use in my poetry. What journalism taught me is how to connect to communities, how to find information, and how to interact with documents. I still use the skills even though I'm not currently practicing it.
Many of the poems Dear God, Dear Bones, Dear Yellow respond to or incorporate journalism. The use of headlines in “Good Muslims Are All Around Us” is so powerful. How does your work in poetry and journalism overlap and carry over to one another?
As a child growing up in the United States, and as somebody who was six years old during 9/11, growing up in the supercharged anti-Muslim rhetoric, it's always been fascinating to me the ways in which headlines report articles and how the language that we use creates violence that can be targeted to a specific group of people consciously or not consciously. When somebody hasn't taken the time to think about language and its impact, there are implications to the words they put on a page. I was very aware of the consequences of reporting. Reports about Palestine, for example, often say Palestinian children have been shot dead by Israeli officers. They’re referred to as shot dead and not murdered, which implies that there isn't this connection between the perpetrator and the victim. You also see this a lot with the way that we talk about the killing of Black men in this country by police officers in the use of the active versus passive voice. Growing up in that atmosphere taught me to be more critical.
One of the most poignant moments in the book is the USCIS Trip poems, where you detail your grandmother’s relentless and excruciating journey to become an American citizen. How do you go about having conversations with people who hold such contrasting, and often heavily idealized, images of America?
America often creates wars, meddles into other countries. create chaos, and wreaks havoc on generations. Then we become refugees or have a need to immigrate to this country as a direct result of America being a colonial nation and American interests always being put above all else in the world. When you are somebody who is white and or has grown up in this country and hasn't been to other countries, you believe that the world revolves around the United States, that it is the center of the universe. With my grandma, she was happy to receive her citizenship and felt a sense of safety and stability in having her citizenship. But I continually ask: at what cost?
I ask that question with the knowledge that it's a question I'm asking from a place of privilege as somebody who did not grow up in Palestine. I was born in Amman, Jordan and I didn't grow up there either, so there's a lot that I didn't experience. There is still this image of America being the land of opportunity. In a lot of ways, some of the poorest people in this country are perhaps richer than people in other countries around the world. We know this to be true in some ways, but I just continually question the consequences.
I’m wondering with relatives, like your grandmother, who still blissfully believe in America, are these conversations even worth happening?
Family and politics are really difficult to navigate. It's really hard for me to come to her and tell her to be critical of this country when she is limited in the amount of water that she can use every week in Amman. She’s limited in the amount of gas she can use and parts of her home are not heated in the winter. For me to come and tell her to be critical of America, as I'm sitting in an air conditioned and heated home, and have this ability to use as much water as I please, is a privilege.
I haven't navigated that conversation. And I, throughout the process of her receiving her citizenship, helped her with it. I wasn’t going to break her bubble of joy with whatever criticism I had. She deserves to be happy.
In “I Buried My Father Last Winter,” you write “The first time I met my father, I was interviewing a Bhutanese refugee.” When I spoke to Diana Khoi Nguyen, she discussed that she spoke with members of the Vietnamese diaspora due to the silence sustained by her parents. Do you share a similar experience?
My dad was somewhat open about talking about his experiences. I was working on a story at the time for a magazine about a community that was living in Akron, Ohio, which is where I grew up. The community consisted of predominantly Bhutanese and Nepali refugees. I was fascinated by their experience of coming to this country because it mirrored my grandparents’ experience of having to navigate language barriers and watching this generational divide with their kids. In the poem, I quoted the words from a refugee I interviewed.
It mimicked a lot of what my parents often said to us or accused us of growing up because of the strangeness and distance we felt from not growing up in the same place, not speaking the same language, and not having an affinity for the same food. White people, for example, often go to the same high school as their parents, or share similar experiences, and I think there’s a closeness and intimacy in that. But children of immigrants don't experience that. When I was interviewing this refugee, I was at this place of empathy and understood the sense of betrayal and loneliness with one’s children and new country.
You open with an epigraph “Let this book be an invitation, as prayer, as love.” Moments of love are dispersed through the book. In “USCIS Trip #2,” you write “I want my rage to elicit love and more love. I want people to stop asking if I love this country.” In the last piece, “Pledging Allegiance,” you question, “What does it mean to love? A country? A book? A people?” How do you intend the book to serve as love? What does it mean to proffer this book as love when you question its definition?
In a way, I wrote the book from a place of isolation and loneliness and a desire to connect. My sense of safety, community and belonging and feeling loved came from reading other writers like Tarfia Faizullah, Randa Jarrar. Safia Elhillo, and Kaveh Akbar. All of these people made a huge impact not only on my work, but also on my mental health and ability to navigate the world. I see the book as an act of love and vulnerability. I think that often your first book as a poet tends to be autobiographical because you have all these experiences you’re going through. I wanted that first page to welcome people in and to make them feel safe and to establish a connection.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Jireh (they/them) is a queer Taiwanese/Hong Konger American poet and multimedia journalist born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. Their poetry and prose appear in The Rumpus, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and more. As an artist, they’ve collaborated with filmmakers at Level Ground and the Human Rights Campaign to bring their poetry to screens. They are a screenwriter in training with Get Lit, Words Ignite and a current documentary fellow with the Asian American Journalist Association Voices program. As an intern, they worked at The Los Angeles Times and NPR. Most recently they were an associate producer with CapRadio on a new podcast “Mid Pacific” on Asian American identity. They volunteer as the student representative for the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalist Association. You can follow their work on Instagram and Twitter at @bokchoy_baobei or at jirehdeng.com.
One of my favorite poems of yours is “Where I prove by induction, humanity,” where you so brilliantly incorporate math. I loved how you mapped out a math problem and presented scratchwork at the bottom. How did you navigate the collaboration between poetry and mathematics?
I was inspired by taking a proof-based math class. I was a math major for two years and actually only needed to take one more class to be a math minor, but I’m done with school and don’t want to think about it anymore. Although I am no longer taking math classes, math still affects how I think. I was thinking, what if I wrote a poem as a math proof?
I was also taking a class with this professor who was insightful about not only math, but also the humanities. She explained many concepts in an interesting way and encouraged us to include our scratch work on the side.
What was uncomfortable about the proof-based math class was the ambiguity because I was always wondering if I was answering the problems correctly. I was struggling a lot because I’m better at plugging in numbers and working with very concrete rules. There’s a certain math logic, which is why math majors actually score very high on the LSAT. This class opened up space for me to think about how poetry is structured and how the world works at a macro and micro level.
I’m also really fascinated by your poem “Thanks, but the role of white girl is already taken,” where it’s first a contrapuntal and then you employ erasure on the initial poem to create a new understanding. Can you walk me through the development of this poem?
For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in the San Gabriel Valley, which is mostly Asian American and Latinx. Going to college was a culture shock because I went from being one of many Asian Americans in a room to suddenly being the only Asian American.
During the pandemic, many white women were making my life very difficult in a myriad of ways because they were racist. I was shocked by the audacity because growing up, I didn’t experience white people acting like they owned things, owned time, or owned a space they walked into. The Asian American culture I grew up in, especially my church community, had an emphasis on being deferential, polite, and going out of your way to be considerate towards other people.
When I moved out during the pandemic, I had a racist roommate and I was shocked by her audacity to say such racist things. It was compounded by the fact that I was working at my student newspaper at the time, which was really problematic. I was constantly being gaslit by the white women that were in that journalism program. I remember countless frankly ridiculous things people told me that almost made me quit journalism. Someone, who I considered to be a mentor at that time, said I was too focused on racism and that I was distracted from getting the right work done.
That’s true in some regards. There’s a quote from Toni Morrison where she says “racism is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
As a person of color, you have to constantly prove that you’re human before people read or consider your work seriously. I think this not only applies to journalism, but also to poetry and any type of literature. You’re a hyphenated American. The white woman who was ignoring what I was saying about racism was essentially saying I was the distraction.
When my poem, “Thanks, but the role of white girl is already taken,” was first published, I was worried that someone might find it and nail me on the cross for my journalism because in journalism, you’re required to remain unbiased.
I don’t think I ever have had the choice to be unbiased. Especially as a queer Asian American, my identity is always up for debate. My humanity is up for debate.
This poem really came from a place of frustration. I realized that whiteness isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s also about the way you behave in the world. That’s why people of color also act like white people and in structures of whiteness. What shocks me about American culture is how individualistic and how selfish many people are because everyone is trying to make it for themselves and as a result don’t show up for one another.
A piece of unsolicited advice is to please never take a workshop if it’s not led by an anti-racist. During workshops, I’ve felt that my work was put into a category of “other'' and I’ve been told my work is too specific and not relevant to the white gaze.
In the second part of the poem, which is erasure, I thought of it not as a blacking out, but as a disappearance. I grew up in a bilingual household but then lost the ability to speak Chinese. I felt the loss of language. Instead of a word being covered up, words simply did not exist for me.
Erasure through the blank page, rather than erasure through blackening out lines, feels more appropriate to how I've been experiencing language throughout my entire life. I almost think that words are almost like dust particles, floating around in the second half of the poem.
Thank you for sharing that and thank you for your advice. You venture into many different art and writing mediums—poetry, prose, journalism, photography, mixed media—that it’s impossible to define you into a singular craft. What does being an artist mean to you? How does each artistic field you pursue interact with one another?
Poetry was the way I entered the art and writing world and I’ve always been interested in the intersection of poetry and journalism. I’m deeply afraid that I won't get to tell the stories that I want to tell. Life is short and I want to make things that outlast me. As an artist, my mission is to always humanize.
I’m very disinterested in representation politics, which is thinking appointing a queer person or person of color as the head of an organization will magically cure 200 years of racism and homophobia. If racism and homophobia existed for 200 years, it’s going to take another 200, if not more, years to truly fix it.
My work is an extension of my identity. The main thing I want to move into is directing and producing films now. I always loved visual stories and I want to take an active part in storytelling.
Film and journalism are very much about the act of witnessing. Right now, I want to move away from realism and more into fictional work. But it’s very difficult to be a filmmaker without having gone to film school. I’ve never taken a single class in film or documentary. I’ve had to learn things along the way and teach myself how to use different software.
How do you balance creating multiple types of art and writing, especially while also attending school?
Honestly, it was very hard. I spent a whole year working full time while also being in school full time. This summer, I was supposed to go to Kansas to work full time, but I didn’t because I was burnt out. I’m also broke because I decided I needed to be financially independent from my parents for mental health reasons.
I don’t hold anything against my parents, but sometimes it takes them five years to figure out things it takes the rest of us five seconds to because they’re from a different generation. I’m not excusing how they’ve behaved, but for my personal safety, I had to move out. But I’ve never taken a job that doesn’t move me emotionally or doesn’t align with my beliefs. I wake up every morning excited to be doing what I’m doing.
I was depressed and suicidal as a kid. The loneliness of queer youth was very difficult and compounded by the fact that I’m Asian. When your family doesn’t talk about where they came from, your history is obliterated. At the same time, your future is obliterated because your parents are unsupportive. My parents are deeply religious and were concerned that I was going to hell.
Now, being grounded in a community where I am able to produce beautiful art and storytelling feels so revolutionary. The world feels more infinite and boundless. I feel so lucky now that I’m doing what I dreamed about two, three years ago.
I have this sense of urgency to be working out of financial need but also out of the desire to be closer to people because the nature of being a journalist and storyteller is to be close to people.
You wrote in The Washington Post “learning to protect myself is also a political act of defiance: I refuse to play the role of a victim, or to rely on the police for my personal safety.” Does pursuing art and writing create the same defiance for you?
Yes. I've never felt like there was a moment where I had to look to an institution to give me validation for my artwork. Art to me is a living, breaking thing that interacts with people in open and mysterious ways. I have such fondness for the local art galleries and museums that are embedded in neighborhoods.
I’m also proud to have a nexus of connections in the art world. I can point people who have connected me to others to other folks. There's something very serendipitous about that. Connections are made because genuinely, we want to see each other all succeed. Of course there are barriers in the art world, but I’ve never felt that people haven’t been rooting me on.
As a journalist, my job is to always be like a cultural frontline worker who is always recording history. I want to recognize spaces that have historically been lost. If you don’t write about a topic or event, it’s almost like it never existed. So much of my family history has been obliterated because we don’t know or talk about it. My obsession as a journalist is to record history so that it doesn’t get lost.
As a queer person, the future feels ambiguous, which is why I’m very rooted in the documentation aspect of my work. Sometimes I wish that I could write about anything and not care about reality at all. I was reading K-Ming Chang’s Gods of Want and I thought it was so badass how she can just write about the fantastical and the craziest inventive things. I struggle to make up lies, so maybe that’s why my work is so grounded in reality. I want to tell real stories and capture people’s experiences so that I can incorporate them into my work.
K-Ming Chang is a visionary. Another poet and journalist I really love is Noor Hindi, who wrote in “Breaking [News]” that “Reporting is an act of violence–poetry one of
warmth.” Do you feel similarly about the difference between creative writing and journalism?
Yes, I know Noor! Noor’s a beast when it comes to the page. She’s such a powerful poet. I'm always grappling with power dynamics as a journalist. There’s an inherent extractive nature of journalism, in which you’re entering a community, taking a story, and leaving them behind. That really bothers me about the profession and why I don’t conduct myself in a typical journalist way that is distant and separate. Journalists can’t be robots and always objective. We’re real, living humans and we interact and shape the world. The way that we see the world informs how others see the world. It is inherently violent because journalism historically hasn’t been inclusive. Look at who’s owned large newspapers, whose perspective is being told, who has power over how the media is told.
There are a lot of journalists with that urgency to be fair and accurate, but there are a lot of us that don’t have the understanding of what it’s like to live in precarity, in the margins.
I grew up in a middle-class community and had privileges like food security, but my family did not have an excess of money and were very frugal. My parents did not think I could make a career as a writer. The fact of the matter is that in journalism, it’s very difficult for low-income people to break in because it’s so hard to get an internship and most are unpaid.
Being a journalist can also be violent towards yourself. I purposely try to stay away from trauma-porn-type stories. Instead, I’m invested in stories of queer joy. The representation we need is not of queer people dying and suffering–I know that exists–but I don’t want to be defined by constant suffering. I’m not a victim, I’m powerful. As an artist, I believe the future is now. We have the choice today to decide how we want to be liberated in the future. Joy is resistance.
Noor and I have talked about how it’s difficult to balance poetry and journalism. But I constantly turn to both. When journalism is breaking my heart, I turn to poetry. And when poetry can’t reveal what I want it to, I turn to journalism. Although they’re different fields, both of them do the same work of recording history and telling stories, which I want to do.
As a young writer, have you felt overwhelmed or pressured to write a certain way by the professional literary scene?
No, but I do feel a lot of pressure to be financially stable while doing something I'm passionate about.
Certain jobs would really crush my soul, such as reporting on breaking news. Breaking news is another way journalism is inherently violent—you’re not sitting with the stories, you're turning them out. Breaking news is often reported in a way that dehumanizes its subjects without context and without care for the person(s) harmed and their community.
Asian American Pacific Islander hate crimes have been reported very problematically because they tend to pit Black perpetrators against the Asian American community without contextualizing and people assume an easy narrative. These narratives are not neutral but shape our realities and how we treat people.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Being an artist is hard and exhausting, but I believe I have the endurance to keep doing projects to completion. And I will bring other people along with me because it's never a solo race. The beautiful part of growing as an artist is realizing that so many of us are on similar journeys and so many of us want to support one another. It’s my goal to amplify my peers and make the most noise possible.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
A poet and multimedia artist, Diana Khoi Nguyen is the author of Ghost Of (Omnidawn 2018) and recipient of a 2021 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to winning the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest, 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Colorado Book Award, she was also a finalist for the National Book Award and L.A. Times Book Prize. A Kundiman fellow, she is core faculty in the Randolph College Low-Residency MFA and an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. In Spring 2022, she was an artist-in-residence at Brown University.
Thank you so much for your work. You’ve probably heard this many times before but Ghost Of is so brave, so human, so reassuring. Especially as a young poet, it was very transformative to see that you can really do anything you want with your work and not conform to what you’re being taught or to tradition. I’m wondering what the conversation was like with your family to publish Ghost Of and their reaction after it received so much praise.
I have an estranged relationship with my family, especially my mother. One time when I visited my family, my mother said that she had been googling my name and had read my work that existed on the Internet because we weren't really talking for various reasons. She took all the mother figures in poems that she encountered to be commentary on her. I think she felt really embarrassed and exposed by them. And so she said, “I read what you wrote about me,” and I responded, “I wasn't writing about you.” But she thought “Bullshit” and forbid from ever writing about family. She said she would sue me if I did. Then I went to write Ghost Of.
I tell that story not to say that I defied her. I wasn't trying to write a book about family. I was working through my feelings of grief after my brother died and at a certain point, I decided I wanted to make that work public, which meant I had to reconcile with what my mother had demanded. I was not trying to anger her, but I wanted the work to be public, to enter into a larger conversation about suicide in the family, mental health, depression, and intergenerational trauma.
A month before the book was going to be published, I finally talked to my parents and explained my intentions for the book. My mother seemed pretty chill about it because I think she was mostly excited that I was going to be published. I didn’t think she really understood or actually read it. When the book came out, she came to the launch. And when the book began to be nominated for awards, she was really excited.
When I knew she was going to be in attendance, I only read certain poems. Then, with all the attention I received, I talked about in interviews how I didn't think my mother read the book. But she was still googling me and read the interview and then decided to read the book. Two years ago, she called me and she was really upset about what I had written and we stopped talking.
I stand by my intent, which was to never harm anybody in the family, but I can respect her request for privacy. Some people wait until like family members or whoever is dead to publish their work, but I didn't want to wait until then.
Initially, I didn't think that anybody would care about my family because it felt so hyper-specific. I felt like I went to school to write certain kinds of poems, so I avoided talking about anything overly ethnic because at the time when I went to school, my peers were predominantly white and all my mentors were white. I didn't give myself permission and no one asked me what my story was. I feel immense gratitude for the attention Ghost Of received because it opened many doors for me.
Have you worked with photographs outside of Ghost Of?
I do now. I've been doing multimedia work mostly with my family archives in site-specific spaces. Last year, I did multimedia work in a residency at Willapa Bay. I was working with pictures of my grandmother, aunts, and uncles when they were kids in Vietnam. All of this work was prompted because I started working with the family pictures my brother cut himself out of. I hadn’t done anything with multimedia before then, so it opened the door for me.
I was at your reading with Bianca Stone at Smith College last year and I remember that you shared videos where you recreated scenes of your mother when she was your age. Why did you decide to create this?
Thanks for being there. I wanted to really think about my parents and where they came from and not just view them as problematic parental figures. In our home video archive, I encountered my parents' wedding and honeymoon videos. I was struck by so many things—how young they were, how they didn't know what was going to happen in the future, how they didn’t know they would have children and that their son would kill himself. I felt profound empathy, which is very complicated because my mother was also the primary abuser in our family growing up. It was weird to have empathy for a younger version of that figure. My mother is not a monster, she’s a product of war. She’s a product of so many pressures and anxieties. I’m not excusing her for what she did, but it helped me understand her. My mother and I can’t talk about many things for various reasons, so I thought—what if I could non-verbally communicate with her by replacing her steps as a way to understand where she's been? The project allowed me to be with her, even if we were not talking.
Where do you intend to take your multimedia work?
I think some of it has been shared on some art or journal websites and I’ve shared it at conferences or readings or had conversations about it, but that’s really it.
Mostly I like to create for the sake of creating. Sometimes, people will solicit my work to post on their website, but that’s more incidental.
That’s wonderful–creating just for yourself.
It feels more special that way. And I feel like I can give myself the freedom to do whatever I want. I don’t have to show my work to anyone and it can just be silly. I totally have work like that. I feel really lucky when people ask for my work because I remember what it was like before people knew who I was, when I had to submit and get rejected.
Writing is often helpful to overcome grief, but I don’t think writing can ever be a cure-all. Was there anything else you did to remedy the grief after your brother’s death?
The first stage was nonverbal. I was living in Colorado at the time and I printed the photographs and took them on a hike with me. I would allow the natural landscape to fill them in. I put them up to flowers, held them up to the sky, or held it up to a stream. In a way, that was a precursor to my eventual filling in the spaces with words. That was very healing because it was the second spring after my brother’s death and spring is a time of renewal. When I sat down to write later that year, I could begin to put words into the space, which felt really special.
Are you still dealing with the grief now?
Yes, but not in the same way. The fact is he is not with us anymore and each year, it feels different. We have an ancestor altar and I think about his death anniversary every December. My relationship with it changes—it’s like being in a long-term relationship that will go on until I die. We’re now approaching the eighth year of grief after his death, which is very different from years one and two. I feel less pain but I’m still thinking. When I gave birth, I thought about my child’s uncle and how he loved kids. I think about what he would have thought of the kid. In years one and two, it was just immense pain of thinking about the rupture of his excision from the world.
Another way I think about it is if when a person dies, they become a newborn ghost. So when they die they are like a newborn, but in the afterlife. So now, in 2022, my dead brother is an eight-year-old newborn in the afterlife.
I love Richard Siken’s work and I immediately felt his influence on the poem “Ghost Of” and then saw that you acknowledged him in the Notes section. How do you go about taking inspiration from other writers?
It's very different when I was writing Ghost Of and now. When I was writing Ghost Of, there were poems that I sat with. When I read that Richard Siken poem, it really made me want to write, to use that kind of repetition, to use the leaps of logic. It was like fertilizer for my brain if I was a plant and the poem helped me to grow. There were a select number of writers and poems I would carry around as I wrote that helped.
Now I do that less. I separate myself from reading poetry with the act of writing poetry. I don't really look at poems anymore. I actually mostly look at nonfiction or even fiction because the impulse is that when I read a really good poem, I want to write one just like it. But of course, you can’t write the same exact thing. Prose helps me write poetry because I’m not going to copy the prose, and vice versa.
I love being in conversation with writers whose work I love, rather than trying to hide where it comes from. I want to let them know that their work has meant so much to me and helped me manifest how I felt. Inspiration is like a family tree, or a lineage of sorts.
What are some of your sources of inspiration now?
I really love the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck and the novelist Julie Otsuka who wrote The Buddha in the Attic and has a new book called The Swimmers. Those are my two major major influences at the moment. More loosely, I'm deeply affected and influenced by Anne Carson's work. I’m also reading Pachinko now, which I'm really obsessed with, mostly because I was watching the show. The author Min Jin Lee is amazing and I think of her as a contemporary of Charles Dickens.
Are you writing more prose currently?
I just finished my second manuscript, which is prose poetry. Now I'm actually writing just straight-up prose at the intersection of nonfiction and fiction. I don't even know what it is yet and I try not to think about it too much. Lee Isaac Chung, who directed Minari, inspired me because he talked about his process, which is to brainstorm and write out a hundred memories. When he looked back at the hundred memories, it helped him see a common thread, from which emerged the screenplay.
I followed that process and wrote out my memories. Now, as I’m writing this prose, I’m inspired by Jane Wong’s work, especially her newest book, and Anthony Cody, especially his documentary poetics. I also love Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory.
You’ve said that you only write in 15-day intervals twice a year, and that Ghost Of was written in 30 days, which is so extraordinary to me. Is that still your writing routine today?
Not this year because I have a newborn. I'm trying to write something once a week. This summer has been hard, but I think I should be able to resume writing in the 15-day intervals in December because I was able to do it last December while I was pregnant.
Do you edit or revise outside that window?
I write very meticulously each of those days, so revision and editing are built in. Which is to say I don’t revise too much. However, usually after each interval, I usually wait three months before I go back to look at what I wrote. It's less like revising at the line level and more like deciding what to keep or not. From there, I’ll continue to build. When I’m putting together a manuscript, I might revise for cohesion.
What is your revision process like for your prose poems?
Honestly, I don't actually revise them because I write so slowly. I tweak each sentence like a line of poetry. I’ll spend hours on a line and never want to look at it again.
Do you have any advice, especially to children of immigrants or people of color, on healing or coping with cultural silence?
First, listen to the silence. Pay attention and notice when it is happening. For how long has it existed? Perhaps don’t immediately try to uncover that silence, but think about what might be the least damaging way to do so. Begin to investigate that silence, but sometimes, you can't just directly ask a question to right break the silence.
I did a conversation with Ocean Vuong about his new book and he talks about how he could never ask any of his relatives because that would open up many wounds and trauma. He chose to address those silences through a meditative process within his own life. Another friend, Jane Wong, can’t get answers because many of her relatives are deceased. She does research about their experiences and was able to uncover a lot about the Great Chinese Famine, the Great Leap Forward, and so on.
Each approach is different, so be careful and find the safest way to engage because we don’t want to perpetuate or recreate trauma. For me, before I asked my parents directly, I approached the silence by working with archival material and research. I’ve had conversations with others in the Vietnamese diaspora, which have helped me approximate my parents’ experience.
An analogy is to imagine yourself in a garden and you discover a dinosaur skull. You have to be really careful while excavating it—you realize it takes up so much space and requires a lifetime of work. Be careful and be patient.
And lastly, what are you working on now?
Two things: I’m finishing up the ordering of a poetry manuscript that looks at the Vietnamese diasporic experience as it intersects with my family, displacement, and the legacy of war. I’m writing another manuscript—which is neither fiction or nonfiction—based on personal memories and it’s also a ghost story. I’m having fun when I have the time to write.