October 5–11, 2020
Alixen Pham is a co-lead for the West Side Los Angeles chapter of Women Who Submit, a volunteer-run literary organization supporting and nurturing women and non-binary writers. In 2016, she received the PEN Center/City of West Hollywood Writing Craft Scholarship in fiction and nonfiction. She has an MBA in international business and finance. She moved to California to work in the film industry, specializing in live feature film. In addition to writing, she is an artist. This past spring, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Miller Oberman’s Form & Freedom workshop.
He / never / said a word as I applied the ointment
patches of dark / raised sores / on his body
back & arms & torso & legs I was / a child / playing
nurse Not knowing / why / Father was sick
Only that it was / a secret / no one talked about
Throw / it / away in the garbage outside Mother said
I exited Father’s bedroom with a / hazard bag /
Her eyes / tiny pits of black fear / face marble white /
She clutched a rosary bead / a talisman /
warding away / the diseased man / behind the door
Then the priest shall examine him and pronounce him unclean. (Leviticus 13)
/ Unclean / That was the / thing / Father had become
/ Something / came out of him beyond pus
& vomit / Something / to be hidden
/ Shunned /
Mother / left / Father in the only way allowed
moving from their / shared bedroom / & didn’t
/ touch / him again or / administer / to him
He / never / said a word as I / boiled / his dishes
glasses & utensils / hot-washed / his clothes
towels & bedding / separately / from ours
/ bleach / scented everything / leeching / my childhood
1873, G. H. Armauer Hansen discovered the disease-causing bacteria, M. leprae. (Wikipedia)
Working volunteering Father / soldiered / on
in silence / in secret / shaking colleagues’ hands
/ Accepted / by others but not at / home /
In between his body / broke / down
eaten & eroded / within / by the / unknown / disease
/ He / changed / / It / changed / him /
Not just physically / Peroxided / patches of skin
on an / unnaturally / dark skin-scape
/ Numbness / in hands & parts of his body
Mind & Spirit / traumatized / M. leprae / Fear /
Leprosy, Hansen’s disease, is curable. (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention)
Five years of treatment / longer / than normal
/ Mother / changed / We / changed / All /
Then / the cure / But / the secret / remained
He / never / said a word / the stigma / to / protect / us
Leprosy / haunted / him It / haunted / me
The disease / a ghost / unacknowledged / lingered
Years later as he lay / dying / organs consumed
/ I / took care of him / playing nurse / hoping
He / never / said / I said / the words he heard last
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem after my father passed away in December 2017. I was trying to process my grief, understand why our relationship was stifled and why it took his death for everything bottled up to spill out. When I was a preteen, my father was diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease, aka leprosy. He received treatment, but my parents didn’t want us to know about it. I took care of him and had to deal with frightening moments when I thought he was going to die because he was so ill that we had to rush him to the ER. It was only when I turned eighteen and he’d been cured that the doctors were allowed to tell me the truth. Looking back, I realized how this must have traumatized him, the entire family, and me. How it made him feel isolated and alone because he was shunned by my mother’s fears, our ignorance and immaturity, and the very real repercussions of being shunned by our community if they found out. Today, leprosy still elicits this ancient fear and people in some countries are forced to live in leper colonies, are disowned by their families and left to suffer the disease without proper treatment. Thankfully, the World Health Organization, Novartis and the Novartis Foundation, and the Nippon Foundation all help provide multi-drug treatments free of charge. The partnership between WHO and Novartis, which manufactures and donates the drugs, is slated to end in 2020. I hope they will reevaluate and continue to give this freely until leprosy, the oldest disease noted since biblical times, is eradicated forever.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on two things: (1) putting together a chapbook about grief, epiphanies about life through death, and the complicated nature of my relationships with my father and mother, who passed away in June 2020, and (2) creating more poetry based on a new form I created in Miller Oberman’s Form & Freedom workshop. Miller is an amazing and supportive teacher and poet. I learned so much from him and all of the other stellar poets. The most important was to believe in myself and know that I can do anything. It started with Miller giving us the assignment of either creating a new form or he could assign a form he thought would challenge our style. I challenged myself to create a new form, but then doubted myself. Suddenly I heard a wise voice in my head tell me that if Miller had assigned the new form to me and given me examples, I would proceed to learn about it and create something. After that, ideas about rules and structure popped up and I experimented until I came up with an Interweaving Cento Sonnet or Interweaving Cento Crown of Sonnets. The form is a hybrid of three elements: cento lines, my lines and the sonnet / crown of sonnets. At first, I thought I would write a cento in sonnet form, but a part of me realized I needed to be part of the whole poem in terms of my own words. As such, I wove my lines to connect the cento lines to craft the sonnet, which followed rules for meter and rhyme. Miller loved it and suggested my poem could be expanded because there was so much that seemed unsaid. He recommended a crown of sonnets. I researched rules for a crown of sonnets and in attempting it, felt the theme of my Interweaving Cento Sonnet reminded me of love songs where the refrain is repeated as the theme or gist of the song. So, I applied this idea in the crown and it just felt right.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day starts with feeling good about myself, meditating, and walking in nature. I engage with my writing community either through volunteering and/or morning writings via Zoom to write a poem or a flash or short story. I like to learn something new each day. In the evening, I like to meditate to center myself and practice lucid dreaming or out-of-body experiences. I feel most alive when I can experience life in extraordinary ways: feel the Earth shifting as she dreams (feeling mini-earthquakes before my apartment starts to shake), listen to crows discuss their lives in front of my apartment (they sound like a committee deciding donuts or bagels), watch hummingbirds duel with their beak swords (I’d no idea they were such feisty little birds!), my feet telling me they walked a good life today (they tingle with joy).
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I live in West Hollywood, a tiny city in Los Angeles, sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Hollywood. I’ve been here since 1998. It feels like a small community / neighborhood that cares about its people and is central to the rest of LA, a sprawling and diverse community. I love art, music, history and food. There are Ethiopian, Armenian, Korean, Latin American, South American, Cuban, Jamaican and many other cultures and foods represented here. We have a vibrant art culture (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Broad, the Getty, the Norton Simon, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the Japanese American National Museum, etc) and music scene (way too many to name) here. In addition, I’m close to the beaches and ocean. And we have a lively and diverse community of writers and readings by Ren Hen, Book Soup, Skylight Books, Vroman’s Bookstore, Cobalt Poets, Women Who Submit, Beyond Baroque and more. Changes that I don’t like: rising cost of living, dwindling / lack of affordable housing, and traffic congestion. I think it’s important to provide affordable housing, jobs that pay living wages, and reliable mass transit to all people so that supportive, caring and happy communities can take root, grow and build a future that is inclusive and good for everyone.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I’ve been to NY, but haven’t visited Brooklyn. However, I’m a foodie and home chef and would love to try some of the restaurants located in Brooklyn. I love how people with a passion for food and life make amazing food that blow my taste buds into another level of wow. I would love to try Lucali for their pizzas. I love Mark Iacono’s story about how he started the restaurant and knew nothing about how to make pizza, taught himself, and how much people love it to the point of waiting hours for it. I would also like to try Misi for Missy Robbins’s handmade pastas. Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing has Jewish comfort food that reminds me of my neighborhood Canter’s Deli on Fairfax in LA. Other places I would like to check out: Marlow & Sons, Vega Restaurant, Brooklyn Public House, Smoke Joint, Vanessa’s Dumpling House, Mike’s Coffee Shop, and the list goes on and on.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I think finding the right poetry community was one of the most important parts of my life as a poet. The right poetry community is open, nurturing, supportive, sharing of its resources and knowledge and encourages me to go further than my boundaries, my fears and other people’s perceptions of and limitations for me. I think it’s also very important to be part of a poetry community that is highly diverse in ethnicities and cultures that I can relate with and vice versa. After moving to LA, I joined communities that lacked this diversity and felt marginalized, misunderstood and belittled in subtle and overt ways. I withdrew and stopped writing because I thought I wasn’t a good poet, that my writings were subpar and unworthy of publication. About two years ago, I discovered Women Who Submit (WWS), a volunteer group of female and non-binary writers founded by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo and Ashaki M. Jackson. They showed me how ethnic voices are powerful, important and beautiful. That what we write matters. I joined up and now co-lead the WWS West Side chapter. Last year, I met Armine Iknadossian, a talented Armenian poet and teacher. She introduced me to Tresha Faye Haefner, who runs an organization called the Poetry Salon, and Arthur Kayzakian, two talented poets who’ve helped me learn the craft of editing. Through WWS and the Poetry Salon, I’ve finally felt truest to myself and am excited to continually grow, learn and give back.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
In high school, I learned about Walt Whitman, but didn’t really connect him with Brooklyn. Just that he was American, a great poet and someone to emulate. In the beginning, I tried to emulate Whitman and other great poets like him, but something didn’t quite feel right. I think subconsciously a part of me recognized I wasn’t like them, and not in just skin color, but in life experiences. It took a long time for me to overcome childhood conditioning of always looking to these Caucasian men and women as role models. I respect their work, but shouldn’t try to be like them. No one should. We should all be ourselves.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
It started in elementary school and went beyond with Edgar Allan Poe, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, William Blake, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Geoffrey Chaucer, Homer, the Brothers Grimm, Stan Lee and others. I love stories, especially mythology, fairy tales, dark thrillers, speculative and science fiction, and pretty much anything where I am introduced to new ideas and different ways of experiencing the world. I think poetry has the unique ability and challenge to encapsulate these experiences through form, length, creative language usage (metaphors, alliteration, simile, etc), spacing, musicality, the wild / unknown element where sense might be thrown out the window, and trusting the “rightness” of the poem. About two years ago, I took a one-day poetry class taught by Armine Iknadossian. It was the first time we had met, but she was effusive about my work and believed in me when I doubted myself. Arthur Kayzakian was also in the class; despite having an MFA and already being a published poet, he was open to learning and sharing and also believed in me. I was blown away by their work, by how language became completely new, exciting, alive in ways that resonated with a force within me. They encouraged me to attend poetry readings, to read my work at open mics, to immerse myself in poetry. I discovered Ocean Vuong and the poet in me burst free. Vuong was the first Vietnamese American poet who courageously expressed his deeply personal experiences with words and emotions in poetic language that shook the walls of my fears and doubts and, in a way, affirmed the value of my own writing. I first heard him read at Skylight Bookstore in Los Angeles last year. The venue was full and I had to stand by the door and listen to his soft voice waft over the heads of tall people who blocked my view. Since then, I’ve been influenced by Terrance Hayes, Victoria Chang, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Kimiko Hahn, Garrett Hongo, Natalie Diaz, Joy Harjo, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Danez Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Eavan Boland, Miller Oberman and others.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds was influential in helping me overcome my fears and express my voice and personal experiences about myself and my family. Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec appealed to my love for mythology and the style of oral storytelling. Victoria Chang’s Obit was influential in helping me process my pain and grief when my mother was dying in June 2020. It helped me write poetry in forms that I’d been taught were not acceptable, like journal writing or adding scientific facts between stanzas. Terrance Hayes’s Wind in a Box opened my mind to a new interpretation of sonnets that challenged me to become more creative when fenced in by rules.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, The Tibetan Book of the Dead and two dozen others.
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 multiple books, sometimes leaving off for years before picking them up again. Usually when this happens, I have to start all over again, but I don’t mind. It’s like meeting up with old friends. We talk about old days before getting into recent stuff. I pick up books the way I pick up new bottles of wine: I look at the covers first, then read the introduction, then look at the author’s bio to get to know them a bit. I love physical books over digital ones, but I do have digital copies. There is something about the feel of paper, how my fingers glide along its surface, sometimes toothy, sometimes smooth, how it smells (I love the smell of old books, a bit musty), like time-traveling through the years with my nose, how it looks, the font and size, how the ink fades over time, sometimes disappearing, ghosting off to the hereafter. I only take notes for study books. For poetry, I might highlight an amazing line to ink it into my mind.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Write a hundred-line cento in which each line represents a poet from a different ethnicity.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading and writing outside in nature because I’m relaxed and my inner muse flows out easily and uninterrupted. Before quarantine, I would drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway, park my car along the ocean side, lower my window and listen. Then I would pull out my book or Kindle and read for a bit, become inspired and then write whatever came out. Another place I love is a tree stump in my neighborhood. I sit on the raised roots, lean against the trunk and listen to nature and my inner voice merge and compose together. I write down whatever comes out in the notes app on my iPhone. But my favorite reading and writing place is home, especially before bed and when I wake up. It’s quiet and full of sunlight and green trees.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Cento* for the Sistas
Hard, for women like me who try to have some integrity
I wrote this opus, to reverse the hypnosis
Who said that the ladies couldn’t make it, you must be blind
Said she couldn’t rap but I’m still here standing
How many rules am I to break before you understand
That your double-standards don’t mean shit to me?
You can’t stop it, drop it
You want righteous rhyming, Imma give you some
Well-written topic, broken down into pieces
Imma keep it movin’ be classy and graceful
Here we come, fly girls make your moves
A sister dope enough to make you holler and scream
A female rapper with the message to send
Boy don’t even try to touch this
Let me testify
Observe how a queen do
My persuasion can build a nation
I introduce then produce
Blowin’ up, out the frame, we uppin’ in the game
Words so profuse it’s abuse how I juice up this beat
I’m bringin’ tears to all my peers
It’s my trade I made up the black ace of spade
I treat this like my thesis
I express myself on every jam
It’s the key to life
I’m speakin’ from my heart
So I like what I see when I’m looking at me
Yes, I’m blessed and I know who I am
I’m kickin’ asses, I’m takin’ names
I have a mind of my own
Should I be quiet just because I’m a woman?
I’m here to shake the system up, we gon’ rock the boat
When I come out, you won’t even matter
So get the fuck off the stage and save all the drama
You get the drift? It’s Ladies First
*Sources: Destiny’s Child: 1 / Lauryn Hill: 2, 7, 9, 16, 18, 20, 23 / Queen Latifah: 3, 12, 13, 36 / Trina: 4 / Salt-N-Pepa: 5, 6, 11, 19, 24, 29 / Monie Love: 8 / Nicki Minaj: 10 / Beyoncé: 14, 17 / Awkwafina: 15 / Roxanne Shanté: 21, 35 / MC Lyte: 22 / Lil’ Kim: 25 / Aretha Franklin: 26 / Foxy Brown: 27 / Mary J. Blige: 28 / Rihanna: 30 / Ciara: 31 / Lil’ Kim & Christina Aguilera: 32 / Rapsody: 33 / Missy Elliott: 34
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the revelations of scars,
And what I unearth in the hollows of my clavicles you sculpt and kiln with your breath,
For every wound that becomes a burning match in me as good as doused by the Solomon’s Seal found in you.