I’m made of other bodies — an Interview with Kenji C. Liu
His second collection, Kenji C. Liu’s Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, released in April) vigorously grapples with our shared concepts of cannon, masculinity, and authorship. “Liu is at the vanguard,” The Rumpus says, “and many people will read this collection wishing they could pull off similar work.” This collection of critical new and experimental poems asks how monstrous we must become for the sake of truth. We’re honored to have the chance to ask Kenji some questions about his writing.
Quickly into reading, and certainly by the end, a reader can see that Monsters I Have Been is a grand ambition, staking a claim and a power in opposition to colonialism and the ever-pressing idea of Western Progress, with all the corpses in its wake. You write that monstrous writing—a response to the colonial master narrative—involves the “intentional production of wreckage.” Could you describe the broad movements of the production for poets? How do you see other poets taking this frankenpo form on in actual writing process?
Kenji C Liu: For me, the intentional production of wreckage is a “production” method, but not in the capitalist sense of mass production or easy replicability. Though I use computer tools to facilitate some of the process, frankenpo is also labor-intensive. Combining different texts by fragmenting, combining, and randomizing, and then combing through the wreckage for interesting language, is not a quick process. The intentional production of wreckage is to first dig up elements of the “archive” in the sense of Achille Mbembe, where the archive speaks to histories that the state (or the status quo) would rather forget. Then we find a way for this archive to haunt the present, by asking the archive to live again, working with the texts to speak back against the originals in some way. It’s entirely possible to do this in a frivolous manner that doesn’t speak back, but then personally I wouldn’t call it frankenpo. It’s the poet’s politics that picks the original texts to wreck, frames how the texts complement or oppose each other, and shapes the resulting poem. At the same time, this shaping needs to be balanced with a sense of exploration, play, and openness to surprise, because this isn’t really a didactic or prescriptive form. It’s more dialectical.
Part of the collection’s effect is a critique of Western individualism. The forms of the poems, the use of juxtaposing languages and texts, all speak to a more corporate sense of identity. Could you riff on that some? How do you see poetry as a tool toward closing the gap between the power of the individual and the power of the corporate in all its manifestations?
One of the original Latin meanings of “corporate” is “to form into a body” (corporare). A “corpus” is a body, so “corporare” is a kind of body made of bodies. All of this is very Western. Western individualism also says that individuals have to take responsibility for themselves. Current dominant US American legal opinion says that a corporation has the same rights as individuals, but not really the responsibilities. You can’t put a corporation in prison for crimes it has perpetrated on entire communities or countries, but you can put an individual in prison or deport them for much less. That said, I wonder if what I’m also trying to do is speak to the corporate by acknowledging that individuality is made up of bodies. In terms of authorship, I’m clearly the one writing, the one choosing and deciding how a poem comes together. But “I” emerge from a context, from histories and legacies. In this collection, I’m trying not to be the Lone Male Artist demonstrating individual brilliance through original, inspired wordplay. I’m made of other bodies, of histories both beautiful and horrific, including the gruesome sense of being a Frankenstein monster. This collection is an attempt to make the creative process reflect that reality. Inspiration isn’t a single lightning bolt from heaven—it’s a lightning storm carefully channeled into a taxidermied body—with a moan, the corporate entity writes.
Monsters I Have Been speaks toward a vision of the future, especially in its prose, of a different kind of writing, and even a different kind of masculinity. In “Ritual against toxic masculinity,” you write: “By bending into barb, I learned to man.” Next to your later writing that the poetics you’re reaching for in the collection includes the “intentional production of wreckage,” the line takes on more than one meaning. What does it mean to barb here? How does masculinity and poetry intersect?
It’s important for me to acknowledge and reciprocate the deep care and thoughtfulness I’ve received from many queer and/or femme-identified women, mostly of color, who I’ve known as friends, scholars, activists, artists, writers, and family. Without this network of labor, I might not have been able to conceive of myself as someone who could write Monsters I Have Been. As such, the writing of this collection emerges from a community and legacy to which I’m deeply grateful. There’s a practice in Zen Buddhism of chanting your lineage of teachers. I can’t name all of them within my word limit, but some include the women in my blood family, the poets Vickie Vértiz, Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, and Muriel Leung, and many other thinkers whose work has influenced and challenged me.
Through this book, I’ve also tried to further define my lived experience of queerness—not as a noun, but as a verb—a lived politics, ethics, and poetics that resists the external and internal impulse to police, corral, and homogenize bodies and desires. To be a cis-man in the overly conventional sense is to be bent into a barb—a sharpness that participates in unacknowledged systems of privilege and violences both subtle and overt, including the above impulse. It is also a sharpness that is often emotionally barbed, a limited, defensive palette of affect. However, just as we can be bent, we can unbend and reshape. To go against this conditioning moves us into a kind of wildness. And for me, this calls for a poetry that is also wild.
Kenji C. Liu (劉謙司) is the author of Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize. His poetry is in American Poetry Review, Action Yes!, Apogee, Barrow Street, The Feminist Wire, The Progressive, The Rumpus, The Volta, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, several anthologies, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). A Kundiman fellow and an alumnus of VONA/Voices, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Angeles.