Poet Of The Week

Cathy Park Hong

     September 15–21, 2014

Cathy Park Hong’s first book, Translating Mo’Um, was published in 2002 by Hanging Loose Press. Her second collection, Dance Dance Revolution, was chosen for the Barnard Women Poets Prize and published in 2007 by Norton. Her third book of poems, Engine Empire, was published by Norton in 2012. The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, Hong is an associate professor of English at Sarah Lawrence College. She will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series as part of a Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event on Friday, September 19, at Dumbo Sky with R. A. Villanueva and Jericho Brown.

Engines Within the Throne

We once worked as clerks
               scanning moth-balled pages
into the cloud, all memories
outsourced except the fuzzy
               childhood bits when

I was an undersized girl with a tic,
they numbed me with botox.
               I was a skinsuit
of dumb expression, just fingerprints
over my shamed

               all I wanted was snow
to snuff the sun blades to shadow spokes,
muffle the drum of freeways, erase
               the old realism

but this smart snow erases
               nothing, seeps everywhere,
the search engine is inside us,
the world is our display

               and now every industry
has dumped cubicles, desktops,
fax machines into developing
               worlds where they stack
them as walls against

what disputed territory
               we asked the old spy who drank
with Russians to gather information
the old-fashioned way,

now we have snow sensors,
               so you can go spelunking
in anyone’s minds,
let me borrow your child

thoughts, it’s benign surveillance,
               I can burrow inside, find a cave
pool with rock colored flounder,
and find you, half-transparent
with depression.

–From Engine Empire, Norton, 2012.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

It’s part of a series of poems set in the future where the internet has become so lodged into our consciousness that we can retrieve information and telepathically message each other without the use of phones or other gadgets. So think Google Glass 5.0 without the glasses. This doesn’t require much imagination since all this is already happening. I began with the title which is borrowed from a dime-store paperback sci-fi novel. It’s also inspired by Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine.”

What are you working on right now?

Another collection of poems. I’ve been obsessed with Richard Pryor and I’ve been trying to write discreet poems that explore race through satire and stand-up. The poems have been difficult to write since they’re more personal and not as conceptually driven. Many of the poems explore shame. As an Asian person, I’m quite an expert on the subject of shame.

What’s a good day for you?

Since my daughter Meret was born two months ago, my concept of a good day has been completely upended! A good day is a day when I can have a solid 6 hours of sleep. Feed her in the morning and then we listen to the R&B station and dance (okay, I just pedal her legs like she’s dancing). Then my husband Mores and I take her out to Prospect Park and we have gelato on the way.

Before Meret was born, a good day always involved getting a good chunk of writing done in the morning and afternoon. Then the day would involve some combination of friends, art, food and drink. So that could be going to an art opening with Mores and drinks at Clandestino, or a lovely dinner party or going out to a favorite restaurant like Sripraphai and then a reading for an out-of-town friend.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I’ve lived off-and-on in Brooklyn for the last 15 years. First apartment was a summer during college where I subletted the artist Alex Grey’s loft in Park Slope. He had two Indiana Jones–style skeletons (as in dirty with hair instead of biology-class-immaculate) in his apt. Then Carroll Gardens, then a summer in Ditmas Park, then Fort Greene, and now I live in Gowanus.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

I was mugged on my 22nd birthday when I first moved to Carroll Gardens which was in ’98. I was out late with friends and then I was walking home at 4 in the morning. Two guys snatched my purse and ran away. I had this fight-or-flight instinct and began chasing after them. A guy in a van tried catching them and ended up taking me to the police precinct and waited while I filed a report. In retrospect, this probably was not a good idea to hitch a ride with a strange guy in a van but he ended up being so nice. In New York, for every person who screws you over, there are ten people who will go out of their way to help you out. Afterwards, a detective—his name was Detective Ramos—contacted me and asked me to come in and look at mug shots and on his way there, he pointed out all the mafia fronts in Carroll Gardens. There used to be a pet funeral home that was a mafia front. Anyway, this is a bit of old Brooklyn before all the artisanal bars and restaurants and condos came in. You don’t get mugged anymore, there are no mafia fronts anymore, and there is, alas, no more pet funeral home.

I also remember the day of the blackout. My boyfriend at the time and I were napping and then noticed the fan was no longer running. It was a humid day in Fort Greene and we walked out and noticed a hundred people right outside of BAM crouching around a tiny transistor radio. Then we wandered out to the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge and sat on an old love seat that was being sold outside an antique store and watched the parade of commuters returning home by foot because the trains weren’t running. Many of the women were wearing Chinese slippers because it hurt too much to wear their heels for the long walk home so they bought cheap slippers in Chinatown on their way to the bridge. Afterwards, we ate pb&j sandwiches by candlelight and then went to a friend’s rooftop for beer.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

George Oppen. He lived in Brooklyn during the Depression when he was an active Communist and helped organize a milk strike. Why? Because:

The emotions are engaged
Entering the city
As entering any city.

We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are,

We encounter them. Actually
A populace flows
Thru the city.

This is a language, therefore, of New York.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

All the bookstores that I’m sure have been mentioned again and again: Community Bookstore, Unnameable Books, Berl’s, BookCourt, Greenlight. They’re the torchlights of civilization.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I love going to Four & Twenty Blackbirds which has the best apple pie in New York.

Also Brooklyn Writers Space, a quiet sanctuary of thought and writing.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Red Hook Pool (I love it so. It’s everything that is beautiful and egalitarian about Brooklyn). Also BAM and friends’ art studios.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Ferrante is up there with all the classic male authors who hog the best 100 novel lists.

Ji Yoon Lee’s Foreigner’s Folly: A Tale of Attempted Project published by Coconut Books. It’s brutal and fun.

Why Brooklyn?

Because it’s home, of course.