Writers and Artists on their Work
w/ ARHM CHOI WILD
Post Social Media Coordinator Annie Virginia hopped on IG live with the incredible Arhm Choi Wild to discuss the interplay of craft and identity in their new collection, Cut to Bloom.
AV: Thank you so much for joining me today. I'm just going to jump right in. I took a class on description at UT, and one of the techniques we learned about was to put something there and then take it away or morph it, and then put it back again. The void becomes its own power. Putting something back again makes the mind do the work of seeing an existence, adjusting it, and then really honing in on its actuality. I see this technique happening even in your first few poems, and between poems; you give us love, you take it away, you put it back. To name a silence, as you did in "Inheritance" and "The Aria Thief: Part II", has a similar effect. What is a descriptive technique someone else taught you (could be during MFA, whatever) that you found yourself using while writing this book?
ACW: There is not much I learned in the MFA that let me feel like I could become better at my own kind of craft instead of doing what other people deemed as “good” or “sophisticated”. I think that experience was for me in many ways a chance to clarify my poetics as it stood in opposition to what I was being taught about the canon and “good poetry”. I don’t know how much I believe in overarching techniques as it depends so heavily on the context of the writer and what they’re trying to create, but I do love a writing prompt that really gets you good, that is able to brighten or sharpen an idea for you that perhaps has been tucked away. I think a good prompt provides a container so that you can roam freely inside and examine the corners and intricacies of that emotional space in a way you haven’t been able to without guidance, without a prompt ready to reassure you that discovery and excavation is the exact right thing to do in that moment. A good prompt can often be an anchor so that you can finally attend to that scary feeling or too-big moment you’ve been avoiding writing about. There are some really good prompts that were the impetus for many of the poems in this book. My favorite ones centered around examining ordinary objects and excavating their meaning and how they have or haven’t changed throughout the years, or including details about music or clothing that add a subtle layer of intimacy. I must say I’m also a big fan of what a question can do in a poem, especially when there isn’t a resolution you are pointing to, but a journey you’re trying to untangle and unfold.
AV: When I write about the truth of family trauma, after I write, I always worry that putting them all together will just sound like I'm presenting a sob story. Especially considering white consumption of the trauma of people of color, and cishet people's consumption of queers, how do you navigate presenting a book centering your own trauma?
ACW: I struggled with this a lot, especially when I would encounter poetry that asked me to relive trauma. I was worried that my poetry would do the same for others and I have no interest in just calling violence into the air just for memory’s sake or for my own catharsis. I am driven to share these poems for mainly two reasons: 1) the belief that naming it will allow me greater agency in changing how the memory impacts me and 2) the need to call attention to the violence that many people like me experience, such as other immigrants or first generation folks, wives of immigrants under severe duress, people socialized as women, people with alcoholic parents, queer folks. I hope that the attention can help galvanize efforts to reduce violence in these communities, that awareness can help interrupt the cycles of violence, that naming it can create space for choice and change instead of repetition. Whenever I became unsure of whether it was worth it, whether I deserved to take up space with violence, I came back to these two reasons to help myself continue to be as honest as I possibly could.
AV: What is the scariest poem for you for other people to read and why?
ACW: Probably the ones that I think live better on the page then read out loud- the shorter ones, the ones that depend on the poems that come before it in the book. While I balk at the narrow view of a successful poem in the MFA, I also have been imbued with the values of the slam poetry world in that a good poem is 3 minutes long, has a clear arc, and an resolute ending, and it can be hard for me to break out of that. In terms of content, probably the scariest poem for me to read are the ones that talk about my mother’s homophobia when I first came out to her. I don’t ever want to put her in a bad light, but I am also committed to honesty, so it can be hard for me to read those poems, especially if that audience doesn’t get to hear the poems that are later in the book about how she came to love and accept me.
AV: This book is so personal. You name everyone. So I wonder, who is your intended audience? I'll let you and your intended audience keep it between y'all, but what do you hope that people who are not your intended audience will take away from your book? After reading your book, is there any responsibility you hope your reader now feels?
ACW: My intended audience is queer folks, especially queer folks navigating multiple cultural expectations, people with hyphenate identities, first-generation folks, Asian Americans. I was thinking a lot about teenagers while I wrote this and the kind of poems I would want as queer gnc kid growing up, the kind of poems that would make less lonely the experiences I had as a latchkey kid, as a child of a single parent.
For folks who are not my intended audience, I hope that they walk away with a wider view on the Asian-American experience and that their perspective of the model minority gets troubled and nuanced. I hope people walk away thinking they can’t make assumptions about what queer folks or gnc folks or survivors of sexual violence look like. I hope they walk away feeling more galvanized to do their part to interrupt cycles of violence, whether that is by refusing to brush stories under the rug, advocating for their friends and community, or educating themselves further on what it looks and sounds like to be an ally.
AV: If you could choose one of your poet heroes to read your book, who would it be and why?
ACW: I would want Pablo Neruda to read the love poems and say yes, I can see where I influenced you and I can tell that you’ve read my “20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair” many times over. June Jordan so I could thank her for the reach and influence of Poetry for the People. Audre Lorde so that I can get her take on how she would include Asian Americans in the dialogue about race and racism in this country.
AC: Did any part of making and publishing your book influence your gender-identity process?
ACW: You know, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to publicly share that I am using they/them pronouns and identify as gender non-binary without know that soon this book, with a bio that would use my preferred pronouns, would be out there in the world. Knowing that my family was going to come to the book launch and hear other people call me by they/them pronouns made me come out to them sooner than I might have. The book definitely accelerated my process and made more urgent the questions I asked of myself and also impacted the honesty in which I answered those questions knowing that this information would soon be public and that I would want to be represented to the world in a way that felt the most true and authentic to who I am. It’s interesting though, how books can be a time capsule and reflect back to you the different places you’ve been on your journey. The book uses a lot of gendered words, like women and daughter because I wanted to highlight the ways that the inheritance of trauma specifically affects people socialized as women, even if they come to understand their gender identity as something outside womanhood at some point. I find myself editing a lot of these poems as I read them out loud while still trying to respect the message I was trying to get across.
AV: Is there any relationship between your queerness and han?
ACW: I’ve loved this opportunity to look into what han means to different people. Sun Yung Shin, one of the editors for my book, shared with me that scholar Minsoo Kang wrote about “han” as a prominent national emotion that was actually propaganda by the Japanese to convince the Koreans that it was their fate to be oppressed and morose and full of unresolved grief. Whether that is true or not, it is a word that reflects the long history of colonization and repression, the anger that comes from having to fight to survive. I think the way it relates to my queerness is that there is a history of repression and anger at always having to be on the defense and ready to defend my family, always having to explain myself and fight for my place to belong. Heteronormativity can often feel like a type of colonization and I want to keep imagining ways to break open that mold and create more space for the varied queer experience, which would be a way to avoid the sense of bitterness that han refers to. I’ve found that having a strong and vibrant queer community is one of the best antidotes to the rage that can so easily build inside you. Since the book launch, some queer Korean folks started to follow me on Instagram, and for someone who met their first queer Korean person at the age of 27, I’m so excited about the possiblity of meeting other queer Korean folks and maybe even get to grapple with this word han with them.
AV: Is there a word for the ways in which you celebrate your survival out loud? If not, can you make one?
ACW: There are a few words that come to mind when I think about my brand of survival, like resistance. To defy. Claim. Reconfigure.
But to your question about things I do to celebrate my survival out loud; I would say cooking. Smelling ordinary things. Cuddling with my dog in the mornings. Spending the entire day at the beach reading and swimming. Making my wife laugh. Which makes me arrive at the word ordinary as to how I celebrate my survival out loud. To me surviving means to heal so that I can engage in the quotidian without alarm bells going off. To be able to connect with folks without a strict formula that somehow signifies safety. To be present without worrying about the unknown of the future or the immutability of the past, which I think means that another word I would put to my survival is presence.
*This wonderful video is the work of the artist, Arhm Choi Wild.
Arhm Choi Wild
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 collection of poetry, “Cut to Bloom,” was the 2019 winner of the Write Bloody Boon Contest. Their work 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, Split this Rock, Foglifter, Lantern Review, F(r)iction, 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.