February 4–10, 2019
Kyle Liang is a 23-year-old, first-generation-born Chinese American poet from Norwich, Connecticut. He is the author of How to Build a House, winner of the 2017 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Contest. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apogee, Hobart, Anomaly and Tinderbox, among other journals, and his poems have been nominated for the Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Bettering American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Kyle’s family is originally from Taiwan and Malaysia, and he currently lives in Hamden, Connecticut, where he is completing an MHS in Physician Assistant at Quinnipiac University. On Friday, February 15, Liang will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 100 Bogart in Bushwick with Laura Eve Engel and Edward Hirsch.
A Tracing of Our Shoeless Feet
I somehow always see my mom when she’s waiting at the bus stop in the ocean
I watch the waves nearly toss her over before walking up and asking,
Momma, don’t you know the bus doesn’t come down here anymore
I forget she doesn’t know English too well so I paraphrase,
Momma, not today
Yet I still stand next to her beside that metal sign and together we let the current push and pull our bodies dressed in soaking clothes
The weight of the water pulls our shoes off
While we wait she tells me stories of how grandpa used to sell bowls of hand-made noodles for three dollars
Or was it three ringgits …
It was three ringgits
Anyways, she tells me how he used to walk across a tightrope of barbed wire with bare feet while he held a bowl in one hand and rang a bell in the other because one day a farmer came up to him and said: a three-ringgit bowl sounds less sad if you ring a bell while you sell it so take this bell I took from my best cow and may it help you feed your children
Ring ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding
Someone tell brother the bus isn’t coming
I liked Sungai Buloh but it’s hot and my feet were starting to look like grandpa’s the way they never callused
I was afraid my toes would fall off like the end of a cigarette
At school the teachers made us go outside and walk tiny circles around dead pigeons that flew into the window hoping to be inside
I know something you don’t know
The fastest way into the city is actually by boat
There is a river that runs upstream from the dirt floor kitchen to JP Morgan
Rock beats scissor and scissor beats paper but paper beats a boat full of starving children who use sleep to forget about their stomachs
When is a boat considered an island
When do you become a person
Do you know that question: if you were stranded alone on an island and could only bring three things then what would they be
Wouldn’t you learn more about a person if you asked what they would bring if they were stranded on an island that was overpopulated
I think I’ll ask that on my next date
My future wife better know how to swim
I sometimes swim through poets’ words and end up swallowing more than my lungs can manage
I choke on their devices
I choke on the hypervigilance I was spoon fed by my parents
If I’m choking to death then don’t try to save me, just ask the doctor who does the autopsy not to dress me in glasses and suspenders and take pictures of my frozen genitals to try to reaffirm any of his preconceived notions after I can’t defend myself
Ask the doctor if he will instead cut my chest open and reach into my lungs for an alveoli
Ask the doctor to dissect the membranous sac and see that inside is a tiny me naked and crying
I was born a tree that was quickly cut down and had his name changed to wood
I was born from the times my mom found out that I was bullying back and made me peel the stickers off a globe then asked me to point to where we’re from
The geography category at bar trivia has become my least favorite
I somehow point to the Milky Way as a place between Ethiopia and Ghana
I circle Orion’s Belt when my finger traces up the east of China in search of Japan
With over one hundred billion stars in the universe, who gets to name all of them
Who decides what clusters have significance
Or do the one hundred billion not exist unless someone writes their names down on paper
—From How to Build a House, Swan Scythe Press, 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
We were reading Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human in class and asked to write a poem in the style of the ones in his book: long, prose-like, seemingly tangential. What I loved most about Borzutzky’s poems was the way his lines and images chased across the page, and how he allowed these fantastical analogies to develop. Sometimes I feel pressured to write poems that are constantly moving, changing, and make every single line, every enjambment, filled with such incredible poignancy that readers will want to close their eyes and shriek after every letter. But with this poem, knowing that it would be a long poem, I chased down every shadowed urge and let myself run with them. It was very freeing.
What are you working on right now?
As a PA student, I won’t go into a residency after I finish school like medical students do. So when I graduate this year and become licensed, I’ll be practicing medicine with the possibility of having little to no additional training or support from peers. With that being said, it feels like all I’ve been reading and writing about lately is medical literature, health guidelines and recommendations in preparation for the hospital life. And, somewhat selfishly, I’ve just been working on myself and my medical skill sets. But I’m also doing it knowing that it’s for my future patients, not just myself. Unfortunately, that leaves little room for poetry, which is something I’m working on being okay with for the time being.
What’s a good day for you?
When I get to shower once in the morning and once at night and sit down in the afternoon with a friend whom I haven’t seen in a while and talk for hours with no other plans for the day, neither one of us checking the time until we both decide it’s getting late and part ways certain that we’ll see each other again, but not knowing when that’ll be.
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’m from a town called Norwich. I lived there until I left for college, meaning Norwich will forever feel like my home. After going to undergrad at a private, liberal arts–type of college only about an hour away, I quickly realized how fortunate I was to grow up in an area filled with people of color and different socioeconomic backgrounds. Even though it felt like no one in Norwich looked like me while I was living there, it also felt like no one looked like anyone else so it didn’t matter that I looked different. Most of my best friends growing up were brown, black and mixed-race. Half the kids I hung out with had complicated home situations and a lot were involved with stuff that makes me wonder where I would’ve ended up had I spent a little more time with them during high school. I’m still only about an hour away from Norwich, but I miss it.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
A few times each year, I stay with my grandma in Brooklyn. I was just there for six weeks during my internal medicine rotation. She lives off the 8th Ave stop on the N train and I love the sense of community down there. She wakes up in the mornings and does Tai Chi with the other old Chinese folk at Leif Ericson Park. When my grandfather passed in 2016, we held his funeral in Brooklyn. I figured it would mostly be for family because he came to Brooklyn from Malaysia just a few years before he died. He was deaf in one ear, didn’t speak English, and could really only communicate by smiling. But on the day of his funeral, dozens of people from his church showed up and the service was full. I couldn’t believe how many people came for him.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Where I live, I have a small circle of friends who are poets, but I don’t know if I’d call it a poetry community. I’ve been to some open mics around here but they’re usually small; the crowd is older and aren’t as familiar with contemporary poetry, particularly poets of color. When I think of a poetry community, I imagine a place where everyone is unafraid to share their words, support and uplift each other, and invite those from outside the community to join them in doing the same. I certainly feel that way when I go to a Brooklyn Poets event, which is why I make the trek from Connecticut when I can. Even when I was a newcomer, I never felt like an outsider. And as much as I love extremely small, intimate poetry events like the ones in my area, I sometimes prefer to be able to show up somewhere with enough people in attendance that I can go completely unnoticed. That doesn’t work as well when there’s only five to ten other people in the room.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Joshua Mehigan is a living poetry legend in my eyes and someone whose work I really admire. Wendy Xu was one of the first Asian American poets I came across when I first started writing poetry and helped me realize the presence that Asians can have in literature. And Jason Koo has been my mentor since the start.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Jason Koo, of course. He noticed my interest in poetry super early on, and he was the one who essentially told me that it’s okay to be as Asian as I want in my poetry, even if it means losing the non-Asian readers who won’t “get it.” That was the most important thing for me to hear as a young person starting to write poetry.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
When I met Chen Chen at a Quinnipiac University reading, he recommended Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A, and I find myself thinking about it frequently, especially as I consider the possibility of constructing a full-length manuscript in the near future. Each section has a distinct style and aim with this sense of projects within a project—the first section of the book strictly contains poems in the form of letters addressed to Mao Zedong. In theater, we’ll say that an actor made a strong choice if they did something effectively powerful with clear intentions that maybe abandoned the safety of doing what’s expected. I saw a lot of strong choices in her book.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Books I’ve been meaning to read? Jesus. Too many. There are books that came out early last year that I’ve been meaning to cop, like Borzutzky’s Lake Michigan, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here and Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Others I’ve been dying to read are Terrance Hayes’s How to Be Drawn, Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang and sam sax’s Madness. I know that most of those books have only been out for a year or two, but I’m also an unapologetic millennial, so one or two years to an iPhone-carrying, Instagram-scrolling, Starbucks-drinking twenty-something-year-old like me feels like ages.
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’m an awful reader. Dipping in and out of multiple books at a time would be an understatement. But when I come across a poet I like, I’ll try to find all their work and binge on it. And I definitely prefer physical books but digital journals and magazines. I like to think that once I’m out of school and have an income, I’ll be able to afford to buy books and have a more structured approach to indulging in poetry. As for note-taking, I wouldn’t say that I take notes. But when I find a poem that I really like, I’ll try to design a prompt for myself based on it, and through the process of writing a new poem, I produce something that draws on the parts I loved in the first poem.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to write more long poems. I’d also like to try introducing Chinese mythology and folklore into my poetry so that I can contribute to preserving Asian history here in America.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Anywhere I can get a good cup of tea and flood my ears with a low rumble of indistinguishable conversations. Doesn’t have to be any place in particular. However, on a side note, I have noticed that when I’m at my parents’ house, sleeping under their roof tends to give me the urge to write new poems.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
As I mentioned before, I love where my grandma lives off the 8th Ave stop on the N. I also have fond memories of attending workshops and open mics at 61 Local, oftentimes taking the train down from Connecticut super early just so that I could walk around the area, eat, thrift-shop and hit a bookstore. But as a non-Brooklyn native, I’m always looking for more spaces.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the sounds from my mother’s wok,
And what I smell you smell,
For every ounce of pork fat that crackles for me as good tongue-
wrapped flavors whisper into you.
Because it’s always been a place for anyone looking to create. And everywhere else is overrated.