by Helene Achanzar | Associate Editor
One More Thing is a series featuring Poetry Northwest contributors and other writers in conversation. This installment features a conversation between Associate Editor Helene Achanzar and Muriel Leung.
Helene: Hello, Muriel! Many congratulations on the new book. What struck me as I read Imagine Us, The Swarm was an alternating sense of swelling and contracting. There’s the speaker who wants to be bigger than a bruise, then there’s an entire body shrinking. In “The Plural Circuits of Tell,” the actions of a whole host of people are weighed against what happens to a single cell. In these poems concerned with possibility, there’s acute and inevitable grief. What big and small things brought you to this book?
Muriel: First, the big. I wanted to write about grief, racialized labor, Asian American identity, mental health, the inevitable failure of the model minority myth, sexual trauma, forgiveness, queer love and desire, believing women and femmes, believing that even the roughest parts of our history are capable of repair, ghosts, our ancestors as celestial bodies, love that feels like the collapsing of the solar system as we know it, my father, my mother, cancer, remission, celllular life, wishfulness, hope, survival, death, beginning.
As for the small, my mother told me that she did not have much when she was little, that she was always hungry. She said that her grandmother would always sneak her an apple, and that apple would come to symbolize something purely good, something worth living for. In a small way, it has shaped a part of my mother that I really love, and I think to myself often, “Move with the kindness of apples” when writing this book.
Helene: I’m glad you brought up this moment with your mother. So much of this book is rooted in conversation and the recollection of things said. At the end of “Life of a Drowning,” you write:
I was describing to my mother the sensation of moving through my days like a mother trying to finish a marathon in a pool of molasses. . . . She said, Can you manage, and it was not a question. I told her I was a marriage of fine and fine. My sadness was not louder than her grief.
I’m curious about the portraits your poems create through the exchanges between the speaker and others. They’re simultaneously portraits of individuals and of relationships. Can you say more about the functions of explicit and implicit dialogue in your work?
Muriel: I think any memoiristic work that proceeds to look inward must also acknowledge that our life is populated with the influence of so many others; our memories are so peopled. I remember the things people say to me so clearly sometimes that they reverberate through my memory for years, and yet I also know that the insistence of that memory has nothing to do with it being more precise. I’m interested in what happens when personal and collective memory overlap or deviate from one another, how the power or grief of difference leads us to some tension that can be either generative or destructive. This is all to say that the dialogue becomes a part of Imagine Us, The Swarm, because how can it not? I am the assemblage of both my memory and the ones that contest it.
Helene: Beyond the memoiristic content, the influence of others is made explicit in the way your poems reference a number of Asian and Asian American thinkers. You respond to filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha, political scientist Claire Jean Kim, and disability justice worker Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, among many others. In this book, thought isn’t derived solely from interior meditations on autobiographical events. You have a keen way of using theory by Asians and Asian Americans to ask questions about intimate relationships, grief, and selfhood. Relatedly, that’s what makes this line so funny: “The white woman who said, ‘I am jealous of your culture; you will never run out of things to write about.'”
Muriel: Huh, I guess the white woman wasn’t wrong then! That’s the thing about Asian and Asian American scholarship, art, and activism. I think many people are unaware that while intellectual elitism and hierarchy obviously exists, there is also a rich history of Asian and Asian American academic labor, art, and activism intersecting, simultaneously shaping and influencing one another. How solipsistic would it be to write from one’s personal experience without acknowledging the depth of this history in the formation of my politics, my art, and my values? It is plenitude, yes, and I believe in giving credit, giving due to the people who came and invented before me. I believe in celebrating the abundance that people do and do not know exist, and how my life has been granted greater meaning and discovery because of it. This white woman has no idea! Let us feel bad (but not too bad) for her.
Helene: Switching gears a bit, I want to ask you about lineation. In literary writing, there are units of meaning: the stanza, the paragraph, the sentence, the phrase, the word, the punctuation mark. One unit of meaning in poetry that, I think, has no counterpart in prose is the line. Because Imagine Us, The Swarm has non-standard dimensions (longer in width than in height) compared to most contemporary books, the physical object can accommodate longer lines. Margins aside, one line in “This is to Live Several Lives,” occupies the entire width of the page: “The next day, I danced into dawn, shimmering in a devastation that looked and felt like a human-sized hole.” Later, on the same page, the line, “Unsure what else to do.” There are also lines that only hold punctuation marks. Then there are the lines that are a single punctuation mark. Can you say a bit about how you approach lineation?
Muriel: I love that interpretation of genre as distinguished by different uses of “units of meaning” and how the line is exceptional to poetry. I think you’ve already answered this question for me by pointing to how expansive the line can be, constrained only by the margins of the book.
Imagine Us, The Swarm began as a fairly conventional essay; I was navigating multiple ideas through sentences and paragraphs, but it became clear that many of the ideas felt compressed by this form, and so I took the essay apart, lineated it, and instead of words in between sections, filled it with the “static” of punctuation. I think of the ellipses, brackets, and other punctuations used in the opening essay-in-verse, “This is to live several lives,” as serving the purpose of underground noise, what reverberates below the surface of meaning. Since the essay-in-verse contends so much with what is unspoken, I want to insist that what isn’t spoken isn’t necessarily silence, because there are many forms of meaning-making operating in our psychic interiors, not accessible to, for instance, a white public. When these punctuations make up a whole line or interrupt it, I think of how my family and community operate through so much subtext, comprehension of meaning behind meanings, and invent our own language in the face of so much public illegibility. The line means this much to me.
Helene: What else is meaning-making in your life right now? How have you been spending your days?
Muriel: During the pandemic, I’ve moved through various activities to make meaning out of my days. They’ve included dyeing my hair green, keeping plants alive, making dumplings, making elaborate meals with my partner who is a chef and adjusting to cooking at home (soup that takes all day to cook, roast chicken, fish, etc.), and adopting my two-year-old cat Vida. Of all of these, I have to say that Vida has been the most transformative part of my life in the pandemic, mainly because I never thought I would have an animal to care for, let alone one as odd as she is. She likes to sit with her paws crossed, very politely, and she watches me with such unflinching intensity that I am fairly sure that, should I ever meet my early demise, she might have something to do with it. I’ve found that caring for someone or something other than myself has necessitated that I tend to myself too, so I am grateful to learn this now.
Helene: At a time when self-care (as a buzzword rather than a healing practice) has become framed as the consumption of material goods and linked to ideas of individualism, it’s refreshing to think about the ways providing care for the loved one can be fulfilling rather than draining. In what ways has tending to Vida taught you to tend to yourself?
Muriel: Well, there is a reason I got a cat instead of a dog—I’m not that emotionally available (lol). I think Vida, like most cats, operates best when she’s allowed her sense of choice and autonomy. When I first adopted her, I hovered a lot, trying to get her out from under my bed, not realizing that everything I was doing was spooking her. Eventually, I just left her to her own devices, putting food out regularly and making sure her litter was accessible. She would come out to eat at night when I was asleep, and then eventually, came out on her own to nestle against me. I was told when I adopted her that I shouldn’t expect an affectionate pet, and I was prepared for that. However, over time, with greater trust, she has become something of a lap cat, and I attribute that to giving her space to explore and do things on her own time, trusting that food and shelter will always be there.
I think this is the kind of love worth exercising in human relationships—the kind of love where the only condition is that we do the best we can within our ability to care for someone. I want that love for myself, and to be that for a being much smaller than me is a start.
Muriel Leung is the author of Imagine Us, The Swarm (Nightboat Books), Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), and Images Seen to Images Felt (Antenna) in collaboration with artist Kristine Thompson. A Pushcart Prize nominated writer, her writing can be found in The Baffler, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, and others.
She is a recipient of fellowships to Kundiman, VONA/Voices Workshop and the Community of Writers. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Gold Line Press and the Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. She also co-hosts The Blood-Jet Writing Hour Podcast with Rachelle Cruz and MT Vallarta. She is a member of Miresa Collective, a feminist speakers bureau.
Currently, she is an Andrew W. Mellon Humanities in a Digital World fellow at the University of Southern California where she is completing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature. She is from Queens, NY.