How It’s Made: Arhm Choi Wild’s CUT TO BLOOM
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Ahrm Choi Wild’s debut CUT TO BLOOM (from Write Bloody Press). The books seeks to do the important work of redefining “the American identity as one that is constructed more by questions than answers.” With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection like this one comes to being.
What were the most joyful moments of CUT TO BLOOM’s journey to publication?
I think one of my most joyful moments was when my friends and other poets did me the honor of editing the manuscript. It was amazing to hear about the themes and emotions that made it into their experience of reading, to know that something of my intentions made it across. Sharing poems while they were still vulnerable and evolving felt like a special way to connect with them. I also enjoyed the process of ordering the poems in the manuscript, of printing each one and laying them out on my floor to see what could happen with a shift in order. Someone gave me great advice once to look at the last word of each poem and the first word of the poem next to it, and I loved the granular way this let me think about the narrative arch.
As tedious as this sounds, I also loved counting the number of times that certain words came up in my manuscript, like mouth and survive. It was helpful to see my patterns of language and what held a particular gravity, and then try to find different words when certain ones came up too frequently. I also kept a running document of darlings I had killed and lines I had taken out of poems. Whenever I got stuck, I read back through this bank of ideas to see if something could work. There was immense satisfaction in finding the right homes for these rogue lines and getting to keep them somewhere in the manuscript. I think keeping a bank of killed darlings will be a practice I continue for a long time.
Performing poems in all their many iterative drafts was also especially joyful. I love how a reading can change the air in a room and make me feel like I am connecting with strangers and loved ones alike. I had to submit a video of a performance for the Write Bloody Book Contest, and I was excited that a submission could include my joy and preference for sharing poems out loud.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
It’s always been a challenge for me to make time for my own writing. As a teacher for five years and in my current role as a DEI Coordinator at a middle and high school, I often feel like I don’t have the emotional energy to focus on writing during the school year. I’m grateful for structures like the Kundiman Writing Retreat during the summer that helps me carve out time for writing new work. Oftentimes, knowing I have a time dedicated to writing further down the line helps me not beat myself up when I don’t write anything for months. My current schedule is to edit and submit work during the school year, then spend the summer months trying to crank out as many new poems as possible. While this structure is helpful, I have to also remember that an intense pressure to produce new poems can also be what gets in the way of creating new work.
The demands of teaching is a large part of why the manuscript took me ten years to write. I think the more significant factor though is that I needed each of those years to grant myself permission to write about violence and believe it wouldn’t retraumatize people. I needed time to feel clear about why I was calling violence into the air. Why am I traveling back to the hardest points of my childhood? Why am I making public the abuse my mother suffered then survived? Why do I want to write about Comfort Women? About the intense homophobia of Korean culture? The decade spent working on this book was the time I needed to answer these questions, to believe that my book would not cause further harm. There are so many forces that seek to silence us, especially those socialized as women, immigrants, and people of color. I had to work to believe that my stories had a place and a purpose, and that I could dare to create space for queer, non-binary, Asian American experiences.
How has the pandemic altered the debut process of this collection? Anything you are looking forward to when everything returns in-person?
My book came out in April, which meant that the book launch party I had planned to hold at Poets House in NYC had to be moved online. I was disappointed at first, but then about 80 people showed up for the reading, some from different cities and countries who would never have been able to make an in-person book launch. It was incredible to share space, no matter if virtually, with my nearest and dearest from all parts of my life.
I had set up a book tour through five different states that had to all be postponed or made virtual. Reading poetry to a screen, strange as that might seem, has been one of the brightest spots of joy throughout this quarantine. I am continually amazed by the talent of the poets I’ve had the fortune of reading with and their ability to convey their magic and fierceness through any medium. I started a virtual reading series called Little Lights as a way to take my book tour online and spotlight BIPOC, womxn, queer, non-binary, and trans folks. Through this series, I’ve read with E.J. Koh, Mahogany L. Browne, Carlos Andrés Gómez, Chen Chen, Tommy Pico, Franny Choi and many other incredible people, many of whom I’ve admired and read for many many years. I am immensely grateful for poetry during this scary and unpredictable year. Oddly, I’m meeting more queer Asian American folks now then I ever have before, and while it’s so strange to close my computer screen at the end of a reading and to suddenly be alone again, I’m also left with a feeling of community. Reading poetry online has fostered a deeper sense of connection in some ways than the few minutes I might chat with someone after an in-person reading. Our correspondences are longer and more sustained through email or Instagram. I most certainly can’t wait to go back to in-person readings, to be in a room and hear the sighs and intakes of air as people listen to each other without trying to stay six feet away. Until we’re at that point again, I’m grateful for virtual poetry readings. They have lifted me up when I needed it the most.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of this book?
Ross Gay and Patrick Rosal helped me realize that my poems on the page can be different from how they live when read out loud. I loved the freedom this gave me to both honor the poem as a paged entity with strict line breaks and the oral poem as a living, changing creature. The debate between stage and page poetry used to frustrate me to no end. I feel an annoyance at the cannon, the inaccessibility, the expectations of a poem on a page. Realizing I could make my own rules, as long as they were consistent and purposeful, helped me feel an incredible sense of freedom.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
Ocean Vuong’s newest book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, came out right when I was polishing poems to submit to the Write Bloody Book Contest. Ocean’s work is an invitation to be precise while also being generous. To me, it will always be an incredible example of an active decolonization of language. Reading his book at this critical juncture of the manuscript helped me craft a compass for my poems that was in line with my politics. It helped me claim my hopes for how my work influences or shifts cultural understandings and barriers. It urged me to be more honest about the complicated relationship with my mother and my mother tongue while moving towards healing. I will forever be grateful for how it illuminated the colonialism I’d inherited and the ways I can push back against it in the hopes of creating a different kind of world.
I’m also grateful that I was working on this book in the era of movies like Saving Face (a story about two Asian American women falling in love) and Crazy Rich Asians. While they are certainly not perfect, they helped widen the scope of the Asian American narrative and offered a different portrayal than the Asian character as immigrant, as source of humor, as sidekick. Growing up in the absence of stories beyond these tropes made it hard to believe that my story has a place, that it matters. Being exposed to different APIA stories helped me believe that I didn’t have to write for a white audience and that I can center those who could intimately relate to the poems.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Submit, submit, then submit again. Publication in many ways feels like a numbers game. I sent in the manuscript 27 times before it got picked up by Write Bloody. Not all of the poems were perfect every time I sent them out, but it helped to keep working on the muscle of submission and thinking about the manuscript living out in the world. Continual submission was a way to keep the manuscript alive even while I was distracted with work and all the other things that pull a person away from writing.
I used to save every rejection letter I ever got, but the ones that got a special place in my drawer were the ones that included little personal notes. They would say something along the lines of, sorry, your poems aren’t for us but keep writing. Sorry, but I know your poems will find a place somewhere. Collecting rejection letters is a part of the process and reminds me that I am still engaging in the critical work of holding faith that my poems will find a home.
Arhm Choi Wild is a queer, Korean-American poet who grew up in the slam community of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went on to perform across the country, including at Brave New Voices, the New York City Poetry Festival, and Asheville Wordfest. Arhm is a Kundiman fellow with an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and was a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize in 2019. Their debut book of poems, CUT TO BLOOM, was the winner of the 2019 Write Bloody Book Contest. Arhm has been anthologized in Daring to Repair by Wising Up Press and The Queer Movement Anthology of Literatures, and appears in Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Split this Rock, and other publications. They work as the Director of the Progressive Teaching Institute and as a Diversity Coordinator at a school in New York City. For more information, visit arhmchoiwild.com.
You can find their collection here.