Columns by Kimiko Hahn

The Importance of Merging Margins


In the current Broadway play Red, Mark Rothko shouts at his assistant for never having read such writers as Nietzsche. It’s both an attack on the younger man’s perceived lack of cultural literacy and a provocative way for the older artist to mentor. All the while, classical music is playing in the background in a kind of surround-sound tutoring. The audience comes to discover something about the assistant’s own musical preferences when he plays a Chet Baker record while the master is out wheeling and dealing in the art world. We also learn that the assistant’s artistic taste runs more toward Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns than toward the high modernism of his self-aggrandizing guru. I’m impressed by the variety of culture represented in that studio.

When I was about that young man’s age, say twenty-eight, I was in the throes of an art movement here in New York City. It was 1983, and the group became known as Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. Reagan was president and he was funding “freedom fighters” to undermine the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the region. We congregated in the loft of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero.

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Hand Weights & Newspapers


Young writers—as well as random people who come up to me after a reading—often want to know the tricks of the trade. And there are a few that I learned as an undergrad (show don’t tell; every item on a list needs to be equally extraordinary; etc.). In general I frustrate the person by simply badgering her or him to read more poetry, both classic and contemporary.

But the truth is I do have my own “tricks.” This feels like a good moment to share one in particular.

When I taught workshops in the past, I used to bring in a volume of Emily Dickinson, a hand weight, and a newspaper. The first was obviously in the “go read poetry” category. The hand weight was there to remind students to take care of their bodies (since even the deskbound have bodies). And the third was meant to inspire them to read the newspaper.

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A Poet and Her Editor


What does it mean for a poet to have someone edit her collection? I am not sure what that might involve for other poets—aside from having some lines cut or stanzas rearranged—but my own experience has been extraordinary. On a panel last year, I spoke to a room of emerging writers on this topic; seated beside me was my editor at Norton, Jill Bialosky. This column feels like an appropriate place to relate some of my comments.

Mosquito and Ant was the first manuscript I submitted to Jill, who was familiar with an earlier book of mine, The Unbearable Heart. She found the new book intriguing but not quite ready—that was the gist of her response. A year later, I tried again and she returned the manuscript with a few comments on the parts that felt most compelling to her. She suggested I add a prose section (what I’d been calling zuihitsu, a Japanese genre) that would give the dominant sequence some kind of backdrop. I love assignments, and so I wrote two zuihitsu: “Reflections Off White” (a sort of catalog of weddings) and “Morning Light” (a more narrative piece on a wife’s leave-taking). If memory serves, I already had two other such zuihitsu: “The Downpour” (written in response to a Sei Shonagon millennium celebration at The Poetry Project) and “Sewing without Mother” (a prose elegy). I saw that Jill was right: these changes added some backdrop and the manuscript felt richer. After about another year, I sent this new version. At that point, the collection resembled the finished book—except for arrangement. Given that Jill is a writer herself, I’ve often wondered how she finds the time and energy to offer such guidance. Even with no guarantee of publication, I was intensely grateful.

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Haibun / Hybrid


There is a good deal of chatter and blogging and general what-not (poetic and academic) about hybridity. But I wonder if this is something new? What does hybridity even mean to a Eurasian, born in the middle of the twentieth-century? I mean, one has only to look towards non-Western forms to find some of what is being re-invented.

I have written elsewhere about the zuihitsu and how this century-old form feels a lot like Williams’ Paterson or perhaps today’s “lyric essay.” I’ve considered how the monostich most engages me as a tanka—and rendered as one-line instead of the five-lines found in translation.

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