April 23–29, 2018
Cathy Linh Che is the author of the poetry collection Split (Alice James Books, 2014), winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Best Poetry Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies. She currently lives in Seattle, where she works as the executive director of Kundiman, a nonprofit organization that nurtures generations of writers and readers of Asian American literature. “Pecha Kucha” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.
Author photo by Margarita Corporan
after photographs in the Peabody Essex Museum
I once was a child who wore a star
on my forehead. I held my mother’s hand
in a new country, the chaparral dry,
a landscape dusty and barren. I wore white
socks and brown-strapped sandals, imagined
Vietnam a country of belonging.
Then America was a heart-shaped
tattoo. My identity a checkbox.
My mother saying thiên đàng, my
father saying sướng quá. My country
a silver headdress against a red backdrop.
One wore a hand-me-down waistcoat,
the other a vest burst open. Smile.
Say cheese. But my older brother
could only part his lips. My younger
grinned into a future of silver coins
jangling like keys in his pocket.
My mother tucks flowers
into her hair, nature objects
of a funeral. This one
for Freddie Gray,
10,000 more for the dead
in Nepal. In the mirror
she is crowned by fragility.
My sister was born in Vietnam.
She died three hours later. I don’t
know her name. My mother wears
a sackcloth dress in mourning.
My sister is another flower my mother
wears, this one pinned inside her dress,
its small white mouth suckling
at her breast.
A photographer strips a woman
of her top and sits her on a rock.
A garland interwoven with the long
metal shells of bullets hangs mid-breast,
as if she is a museum object,
In a family of men, only one
has not threatened, choked,
or molested me in a bathroom.
My younger brother cried
elephant tears when chased
around the house by a terrifying
machine, a vacuum cleaner,
ghosts made audible.
A fight is a kind of dance.
My father advised my mother,
To marry me is to suffer.
Love called his bluff. It wasn’t
a bluff, turns out. He asked,
You would leave me? She answered
emphatically, Yes, and for a while
he quietly changed.
To show scale, a human
stands in front of a boulder.
Magma fiery, then cooled,
then heated again in a desert
where a figure in all black
blends into the shadows, into
the absence of light.
San Francisco is a porthole
into human history. The structures
gutted, the residents pushed out.
A boomtown, a place
for the wealthy, venture capitalists,
programmers in gleaming condos
with glass facades.
In the bay, sailboats, a galleon,
boats of leisure. My parents
escaped in a smaller vessel.
My father hooked fishing lines
to the back. They ate rice
and fish over small lit canisters
Barely perceptible, the double
lives of couples. Parallel trains.
Say, one escape attempt became two.
Say, my mother, petrified, died at sea.
She and her garland of mourning.
Her black bonnet. My father’s ghosted
uniform, his severe hands,
their tenderness like switchblades.
My mother’s sister wished me
a happy birthday today. She told me,
Bring home a husband the next time
you visit. The one they loved I let go,
inauspiciously. Today he texted me happiness.
I am not the end of my maternal bloodline—
but I could be, in America.
Some days I imagine home
as a structure with thatched eaves.
Some days home is a craftsman
somewhere on the West Coast—
in the dusty hills of Highland Park,
in the polished damp of Seattle.
My mother sewed me a sail
and said, Go into the wind.
She like Penelope weaving,
unraveling, biding time. I
like Odysseus, bewitched
by the maddening call,
Like a corona of light,
a feathered headdress signifies
flight and power.
What is history
but that which we make ourselves,
together, as birds.
At a distance, a boomtown
is just a series of structures.
Interior spaces with windows
through which we glimpse
our worlds. The sun on the sea
a light which burns onto old paper
My mother has removed the flowers
from her hair, placed them on a station wagon
for my wedding day. She has removed her
veil. It is a plastic sheet protecting
a rusting car on the streets of Salem,
or Baltimore. It is a vehicle I may never climb into,
though the remnants I will collect as pictures
in my human document.
—Originally published in Hyperallergic, November 2015.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
For the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a group of poets from Kundiman were to write ekphrastic poems inspired by art pieces at the Peabody Essex Museum. I’ve never been compelled to write anything ekphrastic before. I was, however, in love with Terrance Hayes’s Pecha Kucha poems in his book Lighthead—especially “An Arbor for Butch” after art by Martin Puryear.
I used images from PEM’s photography exhibit to write a Pecha Kucha, which is a twenty-by-twenty slideshow, a format that designers use to quickly write their poems—twenty slides, twenty seconds. It was my birthday, and my friends Laren McClung and Sally Wen Mao were staying together in a hotel room, casting spells, drinking sparkling wine and eating chocolate in the whirlpool. The Witch House was steps away from us. There was a full moon.
I looked at each photograph and set a twenty-second timer and wrote each piece, taking the visuals and inserting personal and familial narratives, taking visual cues from the photographs and using each one to create images. I was thinking about what photographs do—what they document, how they serve as lenses into history and oppression, and how I can use these photos as springboards to explore this contemporary moment.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a project that explores a specific experience of my parents after the end of the Vietnam War.
In June 1975, my parents fled Vietnam on a small boat with six other passengers. After nine days, the boat docked in the Philippines, and the passengers were held in a refugee camp. My parents stayed there for eleven months, awaiting sponsorship to the U.S.
In May 1976, while in the camp, my parents were hired to play extras in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Though my parents played a variety of characters—translators, Viet Cong, drivers, POWs—they had no face time and no speaking parts. The great irony is, of course, that they escaped a war only to be cast in a reenactment that placed them at the margins of their own story. The other irony is that their work in the film earned them money, which they used to settle in Los Angeles. I’m still in the process of writing and thinking through possibilities.
What’s a good day for you?
Any day with a friend, a book and a pen is a good day for me.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Poetry brought me to Brooklyn! In 2007, I started an MFA program at NYU, where I studied with some heroes and gained an amazing poetry community.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived in four neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Dyker Heights, Williamsburg, South Park Slope and Crown Heights, off the 4 train at Utica. In total, I lived in Brooklyn for about eight years. As a Brooklyn transplant, I’m not sure that I can relay exactly how the neighborhoods have changed. It seems to me that money, race, power and desirability has everything to do with it. It seems to me a story of gentrification. Dyker Heights was far from the city—it would take me an hour to get to NYU and, late night, sometimes up to two hours to get back. It was primarily an Italian and Chinese neighborhood, and because of the distance from the city, more people of color were moving in because it was more affordable. Poor, working-class, and lower middle-class folks, and especially people of color, continue to be pushed farther south, farther east, farther north, farther and farther from Manhattan. Some people are being pushed out into the streets. Homelessness is on the rise. I sometimes wonder about the role of the working-class artist in this (sometimes the working-class artist is a person of color from the neighborhood, or a person who ends up homeless).
I grew up in Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles—it was a predominantly working class neighborhood when I was growing up, majority Latinx and Asian immigrants. Now, a whole strip of shops on York Street cater to white hipster twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings—coffee shops, bars, yoga, acai bowls. The old buildings are being bought out and more chains are moving in. The neighborhood used to have more graffiti, more gangs, and now, gentrification fences are going up, and the little two-bedroom house that my parents bought in 1980, which cost $50,000, is now nearly $700,000.
In many ways, it’s the same story—but Los Angeles’s gentrification is a bit slower, because of the sprawl, because of the smaller population (four million to NYC’s eight and a half million), because of strict rent-control laws. Still, everyone in America, in their twenties and thirties and forties sometimes, is flooding into cities, and it’s growing these cities beyond capacity and exacerbating the problems with racial and economic inequality.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I can’t think of a defining experience, since Brooklyn is so many things. I will shout out my favorite salon in Brooklyn, hosted by Idrissa Simmonds. It was called Brunch and Word, and she held it at her beautiful one-bedroom apartment in Bed-Stuy. I loved the structure—thirty folks would come together, eat food, drink, listen to a featured reader, then everyone at the salon shared out a piece of their own work. It was held once each spring, and once each fall. Natalie Diaz and Tyehimba Jess and Evie Shockley presented there. It was a gorgeous gathering and I’m grateful for Idrissa for making that space.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
Poetry is such a specific and non-mainstream art. Community means friendship, and welcome, and offering up food and couches and checking in on one another; it means generosity, being seen, and listening deeply to loved ones. I found all kinds of community in Brooklyn, and I’m grateful for it. I’m in Seattle at the moment, and it’s a much, much smaller city. There are folks there from Kundiman; my upstairs neighbor Paul Hlava, who went to NYU with me; the owner of Open Books.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Well, Anne Carson lived in Brooklyn for a while, but I wouldn’t call her a Brooklyn poet! But there you go.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Matthew Rohrer, Natalie Diaz, Sarah Gambito, Joseph Legaspi, all the good folks at Kundiman, Laren McClung, Solmaz Sharif, Idrissa Simmonds, Amber Atiya, Wo Chan, Sally Wen Mao, and on and on. It’s hard to enumerate exactly how—other than: Their work and works have been important, and equally important, their love and shelter.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. It’s a book of essays about music, sports, love, longing, loss—it’s a love letter to Columbus, Ohio, and it reflects on what it means to be a black man in America. The writing is exquisite, and I love the eye toward the “we” inherent, and I love the critical thinking that goes throughout. It looks closely at something, then zooms out. It’ll be a book I keep with me for a long time.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
My current project stalled for five or six years, and I’m starting to dig my hands into it.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I read books cover to cover, very quickly. I am a completion-ist and like to finish what I start. Sometimes I won’t do anything else that day. Sometimes I read in order to avoid the hard work of facing my own writing. It’s so pleasurable. I’m always searching for something magical.
At the moment, the reading is mostly of contemporary writers whose presses have done a good job of being in front of me at the book fair. I only read physical books—and I don’t note-take. However, I think I’ll move into a phase where I will be reading only books that will help my project—books on film, or erasure, or scripts; articles and feature pieces around Apocalypse Now.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m interested in verse plays, or verse movie scripts.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Subways, airplanes, buses.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love family-owned restaurants, where I can pick up a bao for eighty cents, or a beef patty for two dollars. Tropical House Baking in Crown Heights is my favorite. Oh, I love the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturdays—people dress up like art and it’s an all-ages family affair. The programming is wonderful, as is the dance party, as is the museum’s curation. That is the model for a museum—a place that enriches the community where you live.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate ourselves,
And what I hold, you hold,
For every guava, a bright me as good, as golden persimmon, you.
There’s no place like it!