Conversation with Timothy Liu and Karthik Purushothaman
KP: Considering your new book is a volume spanning a 25-year career, the title Luminous Debris
sounds like a train wreck with a few salvageable parts shining through.
TL: I welcome the figure of a train wreck. The suggestion of a journey, an itinerary breached by accidental interruption. What is a life lived if not a series of derailments? What are poems but lyrical pieces we leave behind in the wake of our grand in-doings? I'm grateful that my previous books remain in print. When assembling this collection, my thoughts were: What if I had waited and not published any previous volume? What if all the poems had been held back in some vault? So no, not a trove of a few salvageable parts, but rather, some kind of cobbled Frankenstein, an occult and radical ludic summation.
KP: Your poems shine with optimism even in the direst of circumstances--or especially in the direst of circumstances--as if from dark underground mines you put on night-vision goggles extracting diamonds (something I aspire towards in my own fledgling poetry). Consider, for instance, the poem "Thoreau" in which you and your father are sitting down at a steak house searching for orchards where the fabled transcendentalist "traveled to his own music." Your father's "impotence" isn't merely his being unable to live up to the American masculine ideal, but also the ache of an exiled individual who is both physically far from his paradise in Mainland China, and mentally unable to access the place that appears to have been reduced to ashes by Japanese bombing.
Like Thoreau, your father too is a settler; however, he is incapable of finding his Walden in the New World. Even if you were meeting outside because you couldn't enter his house due to his wife's homophobia, you and your father do share a truly transcendental moment with each other. As a transatlantic traveler myself, I found immense joy in the poem that subverts the ideal that one needs a picturesque landscape in a designated "homeland" to achieve spiritual resonance. As a child of immigrant parents born in San Jose, California, where do you locate your "orchards"? To what music do you travel?
TL: The orchards are actual, literal. I grew up in Almaden Valley in South San Jose. As a boy, I saw orchards and vineyards for miles around. The house I grew up in, which still stands, is part of many suburban tracts that were built one by one as the fruit-bearing vines and trees were bulldozed. My dad paid $25,000 for a house that is now worth $800,000. In the poem "Thoreau," I was connecting the orchards of my youth that no longer exist with the ancestral house that my father grew up in a village called Wuxi, just sixty miles West of Shanghai. In 2010, I flew across twelve time zones to meet my father there for a ceremony where they reinterred the remains of his father and his father's two wives. Sometime within this decade, the Liu Village will be bulldozed to make way for high-rise condos, a village still entirely inhabited by those who share my surname and bloodline. It was quite a journey to pay respects to my ancestors, most of whom I've never met. I wrote about this experience in a poem called "The Remains." That certainly is one kind of music to travel to. I think what Thoreau meant by "the music that we hear" suggests a kind of antinomian path, something unorthodox, something moving against the grain of social and cultural expectations. For me, both converting to Mormonism against my Fundamentalist Christian father's wishes, and then leaving the Mormon faith ten years later to come out as a gay man, are examples of paying heed to some distant melody, "however measured or far away."
KP: While the idea of re-interring an ancestor's remains at a village that's about to be wiped out seems bleak and tragic, you manage to end the poem "The Remains" with a beautiful image of you and your 80-year-old father holding hands after the burial, indicating that the two of you are "the living remains" of your ancestors carrying the past through the present into the future, which is incredibly hopeful, sincere, even romantic! Using my limited knowledge of your personal life, I can somewhat attest to Timothy Liu, the person, as being more romantic than most dare to be in the 21st century; as a poet, even more so. I'm thinking of your poem "The Silence" which details your mother's death, coinciding with an elusive lover texting "wish I was there with you" without having any idea of what you were going through. I'm also thinking about "The Decision" where the narrator decides (presumably) to stray beyond his marriage, in which he takes the ring off his finger before "stepping out into the night." These poems scream that you are an artist unafraid of acknowledging the significance of the events to his own life, which makes me wonder whether the post-modernists were wrong in declaring "the grand narrative" dead. Brad Gooch, whose Rumi biography came out last year, once used the term "epic intimacy" to identify the Sufi mystic, Whitman, and Ginsberg as poets who didn't lose sight of the "larger picture" even while sharing intimate details from their personal lives. I was reminded of this term a lot while reading your book, as well as reading poets such as W. S. Merwin or Sharon Olds, but rarely when reading younger contemporary poets.
TL: Robert Creeley once said that so many experimental poems lack a mythic dimension, a condition he found impoverishing. Both fairytales and myths can be viewed as "grand narratives" or what Wallace Stevens liked to call "supreme fictions"--works that don't just speak for an individual but an entire tribe. Robert Bly affectionately called Grimm's Fairytales "the Male Initiation Handbook," and there's a deep wisdom there that begs the question: how do boys become men? What rituals have to be done for them to die as boys and become reborn as men? Same question could be asked about girls becoming women, children becoming adults. A mighty task! Might literature and poetry have a part to play?
Over the weekend, I considered deactivating my Facebook account, not entirely out of reaction to privacy infringements, but rather, when I consider the hours I've spent/wasted on social media every week over many years, I believe I am in fact less close to actual friends that I used to call on the phone more often. Reading someone's wall or latest status update is hardly the equivalent of real one-on-one conversation. The word "verse" is built right into the word "conversation," this turning something back and forth with another. There's a quality here that I want in poetry, to risk saying something memorable while having it received/heard. Taken in. Slowly and fully digested. William Carlos Williams loved to remind us that "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there."
KP: At the risk of straying away from poetry into reality (or virtual reality), how little are we communicating with each other in a universe of texts and timeline posts? I remember a Sharon Olds poem called "The Solution," written in 1985, possibly critiquing speed-dating and so was more literal than metaphorical but now could serve as a metaphor for dating apps: "The line under I Want to Be Fucked Senseless was so long that portable toilets had to be added and a minister brought for deaths, births, and marriages on the line." Your poem "Bromance," which chronicles an experience with an illicit lover, begins with, "our kisses won't be posted / on Facebook" and arrives at the tragic lines--"Home is where / the heart has given up on / mythical pursuits." How novel, this phenomenon of the impulse to "post," a whole new verb in our lives!
TL: Turns out most of my private life never finds its way onto social media. Much of my private life never makes its way into a poem either, but the significant events of my private life, those things that I obsess over, have this way of begging for some kind of lyrical treatment, and sometimes those forays turn into something worth sharing with the public. So there's this period of incubation, gestation, discovery, without an audience peering over my shoulders. When romance (or Bromance!) is new and fresh, privacy is requisite for intimacy to take root, for the necessary and often surprising disclosures to be made to one another. That's why I'm not interested in posting videos of make-out sessions with the Beloved! My first poem in the final section of Luminous Debris
, called "Falling Trust," exclaims: "Preferring not to think about the love we made caught on tape through a hole hidden in the wall. // The fact that you knew and I didn't makes me feel all the more a fool."
KP: Forgive me for not asking this rather elementary question earlier--Luminous Debris
is interestingly structured, beginning with twenty-two poems labeled "0" to "XXI," followed by five more sections with the headings, "Coins," "Cups," "Wands," "Swords," and "Stones," mirroring the suits of a Tarot Deck. Each of those sections have twenty poems each, a number that is more than what each Tarot suit carries. The book begins with "The Lovers," which I've earlier read on the Poetry Foundation website, which is probably one of my favorite poems ever, and whose ending, indicating that a lover is "every card in the deck," beautifully sets up the book's conceit, also serving as the emotional anchor of the whole work.
TL: When I'm not reading/writing poems, I offer clients "intuitive guidance" in Manhattan and Upstate New York by way of the I-Ching and the Tarot. When putting this book together, I tossed out chronology from the get go, opting for a magic book arranged by archetypes; I wanted to make a tarot deck out of my poems! Many decks have the standard 78 cards (22 from the Major Arcana and then 14 cards each from the four Minor Arcana suits), but some decks have more in each arcana. In the West, we are familiar with the four elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air), but the Chinese prefer five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Wood, Metal) in their cosmology, so I took liberties to construct a system that brought the East and West into lively conversation. If you know something about the Tarot, then my arrangement of the poems will make even more sense, but it's not necessary. Part of what anything "occult" demands is to remain hidden.
KP: Which serves to keep your personal life mysterious in your poetry. Is that something that crossed your mind when you compared the lover to a Tarot Deck--how not only feelings, but actions and reactions between a couple can never fully be understood by a third party (let alone a reader of a poem) making romance (or Bromance!) itself reminiscent of the occult? On the other hand, I see less care in keeping the meaning "hidden" in your more political works, from "Gung-Ho Villanelle," "The Wealth of Nations," and "Beauty" (an incredibly audacious poem, one of my favorites of yours, ending on the image of 9/11 hijackers getting their "72 virgins" in heaven, while the NY Fashion Week is cancelled) to "My Cock Had a Taste of Post-War Iraq" and the recent poem, "Leda and the Swan," which I read first in The Awl.
Having given us a sense of how you write the personal, can you expand a little on how you approach the political? Has your approach changed from 1992-2017?
TL: Someone once said "the personal is political," but there's another way to address your question. I believe that writers, the best writers, write through their obsessions, even their demonic possessions, exorcising and exercising their Shadows. Jung liked to address both the Personal and Collective dimensions of the Shadow (all those parts of ourselves and our culture that we psychically disown because of their inappropriate or taboo natures), so in my mind, as a writer, the important work to be done has something to do with Shadow Retrieval. A great crash course on such an enterprise is Robert Bly's A Little Book on the Human Shadow
. Check it out! Anyone committed to confronting their own shadows in their life and work will be striking a rich balance between the personal and the political.
That said, another strategy or tactic is to leave out the pronoun "I" from a poem, check that all-mighty ego at the door as it were, to see what kinds of spaces might open up. My "Gung-Ho Villanelle" opens with a collective "We're going to war on Iraq" and takes it from there. In the other poems you mention, if there's an "I" narrator at all, it becomes less clear as to who is really speaking, even if the work remains highly personal, if not downright confessional. Regardless, I try to stay close to what is obsessing my imagination, what has taken it hostage, taking a close look at those things both in the closet as well as "hidden in plain sight." Rather than a lawyer or an attorney, perhaps a poet is more of a detective or a private eye than anything else, discovering and uncovering truths (often unpalatable) that others might just as soon pass by.
KP: Luminous Debris
certainly is testament to the many qualities of the poet you've described, especially that of poet as private eye, lurking in the shadows and stalking the truth. While at times we meet this poet in plain view at steakhouses and park benches, there are other times when he passes on coded messages in a parking garage like the Nixon whistleblower "Deepthroat." I admire the range of experiments you have done with form, over the years, embodying a Kantian discipline in the way you approach syllabic structures to make the words come alive on the page. As you mentioned at the beginning of our interview, you have given us not only a retrospective of a life's work in this book, but rather, a new beast altogether, composed of old memories and poetics, and somehow carrying at once an ancient wisdom as well as an ageless quality often attributed to eternal youth.
In closing, could you tell us a little bit about your life right now, what you're reading and experiencing, and what you perceive is coming in your next shuffle of the Tarot deck?
TL: I'm about to drive off to Sandusky, Ohio, where I'll be teaching a workshop on Writing & Divination on Pelee Island in the middle of Lake Erie, just over the Canadian border. Margaret Atwood is teaching there right now as I type! I've taught a version of this course twice before with the poet Hoa Nguyen, once in Toronto and once at Poets House in New York City. Allowing these two passions to flow into a third pedagogic stream has been a profound delight, something not offered in most academic settings or degree-driven programs, it seems, although last year, I did teach an abbreviated form of this very workshop at William Paterson University's Spring Writers Conference, a workshop which you took part in if I remember correctly! In gratitude for having taken the time to engage in our lively repartee, I leave you with a little reading list of books, some rather obscure, stacked up on my desk for the ride out:
Hope Trueblood by Patience Worth (as communicated through Mrs. John H. Curran)
Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board by Lola V. Hays
The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China by Arthur Waley
Greek Oracles by H. W. Parke
In the Footsteps of Orpheus: The Discovery of the Ancient Greek Underworld by R. F. Paget
The Illustrated Key to the Tarot: The Veil of Divination by L. W. de Laurence
Timothy Liu is the author of ten books of poems, most recently Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain (1992-2017)
. A reader of occult esoterica, he lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, NY. www.timothyliu.net
Karthik Purushothaman hails from Chennai, India, teaches college writing in New Jersey, and has had poems appear in Rattle, Subtropics, AAWW's The Margins, EVENT,
and the upcoming Writers Resist Anthology
published by Running Wild Press (October 2018). Nominated for the Pushcart Prizes 2017 and Best New Poets 2018, Karthik is putting together his first book of poems, titled Legal Alien