DON MEE CHOI: As I was reading your poem “Insurgency,” published in Action, Yes, I thought of Ch’oe Sung-ja’s poetry, a contemporary Korean women poet I translated in Anxiety of Words. I found the relentlessly abrasive, rebellious images and thoughts in the poem breathtaking. Then I started to think that a brilliant line such as this “An idiot asking a valid question in a world that didn’t have to be a world because it was already validated as one, its own, Hall of Fame” could only be written by an insurgent translator of some sorts, living in a time already realized—“children’s books will be best. Small cabins will not be kind. Neither will the cockpits of planes.”
How did you come to write “Insurgency”?
DOT DEVOTA: The “Insurgency” poems came after writing a series titled “Defenestrations”. There was very little planning—titles came to me and I began writing to them. I was a dog with its nose to the ground following a scent, turning corners every once in awhile but all the time not looking ahead or even up.
Of course the title “Insurgency” comes from news coverage on US wars. I grabbed the title like a toddler who picks up the word “fuck” from their parents—having very little idea as to what the word actually means but by spilling it over and over again they become a part of the condition of that word. Because it is obscene, gets attention, and for the toddler it has consequences. As soon as the “Insurgency” poems started “Counterinsurgency” poems began appearing on the same page. So I had these mutinies trying to distinguish themselves but with similar characteristics or “tactics” they were completely indistinguishable. The titles become bogus. The poems might as well not be titled at all, or maybe they should just be called “Fuck”.
DMC: Any thoughts about being or posing as an insurgent translator?
DD: I think of the insurgent translator as engaging in armed resistance by taking a foreign language and making it ones own. Although I feel pretty weaponless. Poetry not being much of a weapon in the US. Being a poet here feels like being a soldier without any arms or legs to wield weapons. Maybe that makes the poet a war vet, having lost recognizable human form during battle, possibly becoming hyper-human simultaneously, because they were totaled by the experience—thus lineation in poetry.
DMC: And what about the “Fat Ghost” of the “Insurgency Day”? I’m curious about this fatty ghost. Fat with curtains or something else?
DD: Fat with its ghostness, I suppose. As an invisible entity getting larger, becoming monstrously invisible, taking up all the space but invisible nonetheless. It’s infuriating!
DMC: Your manuscript, The Division of Labor, was one of the five finalists for Omnidawn’s full book poetry contest. Are you distributing it elsewhere? If you were to say to a publisher of your choice why they should publish this manuscript, what would you say? Any insurgent thoughts will be most appreciated!
DD: I imagine the insurgent wouldn’t abide by rules of poetry publishing. I’d ask myself, “How do insurgents get their concerns across, their demands met?” Do some literary beheading. I imagine I’d have to break in through the air vents of Bookthug’s office, or into the Waldrop’s basement, or as literary anthrax sent to New Directions. It would be easier than finding my capitalist spirit and trying to sell anyone anything. I know people say “but lots of writers peddled their manuscripts door to door.” But this is largely a folktale passed down to us by people who mean well. I’m not a man doing business on a golf course. My poetry is my sex. It’s how I plan on sleeping my way into a book. A lot of insurgents have great PR—videos from undisclosed desert locations, and car bombs always get attention. But really, more than anything, I would want a friend to publish it, and I would say to them, “You are my friend and I want to die. Take these poems they belong to you now.”
DMC: Last you traveled to Lebanon and Syria. Why Lebanon and Syria? Who translated your poems that appeared in As-Safir? Did you get to read with the translator? Would you be able to show one translated poem here?
DD: After writing The Division of Labor, which eventually turns its gaze towards the Middle East, I needed to go. As Americans, we’re constantly being inundated with all this information about the Middle East, but we have very little understanding as to what it’s actually like there. I needed to see what was going on street-level. My boyfriend Brandon Shimoda and I contacted a bunch of Arab poets there, such as Sabah Zwein (who translated our poems) and Etel Adnan (who also lives in California and Paris) and asked if they wanted to meet. Originally, I had full funding from the University of Montana’s Arab Studies—a program specifically designed to promote conversation and cultural exchange—but then the US issued a travel warning and suddenly the school pulled my funding and refused to answer my calls. It was the same week that Obama gave his hyped-up Cairo speech to the Arab world, talking about the need for dialogue and understanding but simultaneously issuing warnings and bans making it impossible for me to go as an academic. I went anyway.
Brandon and I were asked to give a reading in Damascus in a basement for about 200 Syrians. They were the best audience you could imagine, because they are actually alive at poetry readings—yelling out, trying to read along, drunk, asking to have the poems afterwards like it’s the set-list from a concert, demanding to be won over by the writing, i.e. engaged.
DMC: You have recently embarked on a much longer trip, a journey back to the land where your grandmother, Dot Devota, had once lived. How does your grandmother’s identity as a rodeo star overlap with yours?
DD: The land—280 acres in mid-Missouri—is still in my family, bought by my grandparents in 1940, although it’s not a working ranch anymore. But it’s beautiful country, very Tarkovsky-esque. It has hidden pastures and quicksand. My grandmother wasn’t a rodeo star herself, just gave birth to them. Rodeos weren’t really popular in the US yet when she was growing up. Still just a bunch of cowboys then. But as for our identities, I’m not sure they do overlap. More than any identity, it’s about connection to the land. Having the exterior landscape mirror my interior landscape. I feel like I was sort of kidnapped from the country before I was even born, exiled from a time and place I had never experienced, so it’s not nostalgia and it’s not idealizing the past, because it’s alive and still in my bones. More like abduction from a way of life—having been taken to a city and given possibilities only to scheme my way back, except now I’m horseless and without farm skills.
DOT DEVOTA fled Oklahoma during the dust bowl. Her poems can be found in Boonville, MO.
Don Mee Choi's first book of poems, The Morning News Is Exciting, is now
available from Action Books. She has
translated When The Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish, 2005), Anxiety Of Words
(Zephyr, 2006), and Mommy Must Be A Fountain Of Feathers (Action Books,