The Columbia Journal launches its new podcast as co-hosts Emma Ginader (Online Poetry Editor) and Shalvi Shah (Online Fiction Editor) explore the writing processes of Fall Online competition judges Monica Sok (Poetry) and Akil Kumarasamy (Fiction). Podcast transcript available below.
Emma Ginader: Welcome to the first episode of the Columbia Journal podcast. I’m Emma, the journal’s Online Poetry Editor, and your co-host. I’m joined by Shalvi, the Online Fiction Editor.
We decided that the best way to start something new, is to celebrate another something new. This year, we began our Fall online competition with divisions in each genre. The winner of each genre category is handpicked by a special guest judge. So we’re releasing the highlights of our interviews with two of the competition’s judges.
First up is Monica Sok, our guest poetry judge, the author of the upcoming poetry collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs On. Sok currently works as the poet in residence at Banteay Srei in Oakland and is a 2018, 2020 Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She is a Cambodian-American poet and daughter of former refugees. Her emotionally and visually striking poetry has earned awards, including a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, a Discovery prize from 92Y, and a National Endowment from the Arts Fellowship.
Please welcome Monica Sok.
How does it feel to have your first book, ‘A Nail The Evening Hangs on’, coming out next year by Copper Canyon Press? Can you tell us a bit about the book?
Monica Sok: Yeah, sure. I’m really excited about the book coming out, and I’m nervous too, naturally, because I’ve worked on this book for maybe six years, and maybe even longer, maybe we’re always writing, and it’s hard to tell when you began the projects, but I feel like I seriously put together the manuscript unfolded across the six years, and I’m starting to let it go because I love revising, and this just took me so much time to actually break open part of the poems. I liked it, it’s good [inaudible 00:02:26], but I actually really want to see how far it can go.
You know, every time I felt a certain way about a poem, I just had to wait, I really just had to wait, and let time happen before I could actually meet the poem, and what it was asking for. The book is, A Nail The Evening Hangs On. It comes out in February, 25th, 2020.
So many words around what the book is about, have been really interesting, because I started to realize as I was structuring the book and ordering the poems, I started to realize that it’s very much about my experience of a second-generation Cambodian American woman, who is trying to piece together her history by way of mythologizing family history, and also actually witnessing sites of atrocities during travels. If it takes place anywhere, it takes place in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh. I went to Choeung Ek killing fields memorial site, Tuol Sleng Museum, the genocide museum there. It takes place a little bit, there’s a poem, like in New York City, there’s a poem, I think some of Pennsylvania, like my background in Lancaster, Pennsylvania crops up as well in the middle of a poem. And, you know, a lot of these things exist at once.
As I was ordering the manuscript I was thinking a lot about temporality as well and how it was supposed to move throughout time, construction, how was that going to work out? Because I didn’t want to have a past and then a present and a future, not that I’m writing about the future, but you know I just didn’t want to have such a neat experience, because I feel like my experience as a Cambodian American woman navigating familial silence and the killing fields and that inheritance of history. I needed to structure the book in a way that embraced inter-generationally, things just happening side by side and all the time. So I thought about memory a lot in conversation of temporality as well.
I’m talking about structure. You told me to just kind of talk about the book a little bit. So now I’m kind of getting into, it-
[crosstalk 00:04:25] Oh no, that was really interesting.
Thank you. It was just the last thing I was thinking about when I finally turned in the manuscript to my press. I’m just looking forward to having more conversations with people in my community and other writers and poets. I’m looking forward to talking to more young people too maybe reach out every now and then. Asking about writing and that’s a really cool thing to be able to talk to the younger generation and kind of encourage them to write and reflect and reclaim their history as well.
How do you advise young poets to go about reclaiming their history?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Let me see. How do I answer that question? Well, I live in Oakland, and I have been teaching poetry to South-East Asian youth at an organization called Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei, originally it means temple for women [inaudible 00:05:25] and it is an actual temple and it’s beautiful. It serves South-East Asian girls and women who are at risk or engaged in sexual exploitation here in Oakland.
Poetry has been a way to kind of empower these women that I’m working with. We have this affirmation that we say to each other every time that we get together. I just pretty much tell them “You’re enough” and then they have to say “Thank you, I know.” At first, these girls were like, “Thank you? I know?” question mark, question mark. It’s so awkward to refuse I’ve got to received someone thing to you, thank you, I know. They had to pass the affirmation on so they would be like, you know so and so, you’re enough, and they would name these people and say, you’re enough and then they would have to say, thank you, I know.
We would keep on doing that until we actually believed it until we actually said it so firmly that we knew that we were enough. I think that’s something I wanted to bring up in response to that question about reclaiming histories. To fully know that we are enough and that you can accept ourselves and create that big space within ourselves before we actually move into these deep reflections, perhaps about trauma and about these difficult histories that we’re trying to insert our agency inside of you.
We have to feel safe within ourselves, and we also have to feel like we are fully equipped to go there, and sometimes going there it was really difficult, and we have to find all these different angles in our subject matter. One way that I like to go about reclaiming history is by mythologizing my family’s stories in a way and also mythologizing public history so that I can actually engage with material that might be too difficult to engage with. We had on, those are some ways that I go about reclaiming history on my own. Also, like a good community too, not to feel like we’re alone in reflecting on these things. I think that being part of communities, for example, like, Kundiman or Hedgebrook, these are communities that affirm one another.
I think that I’m talking about affirmation and the togetherness, the feeling of togetherness, because I’ve had to navigate familial silence on my own quite a bit, and I’ve also grown up in a really isolating place in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My family, we were like, one of maybe eight Cambodian families, 10 I don’t know, like just in the immediate area where we lived in. There were not that many people that I knew about it or could be in community with. So slowly over the course of my poetry life, I’ve been able to connect with other Cambodians and other Asian Americans and just other women of color and people of color.
Just thinking about this concept community that I’ve been a part of, I think that another way to reclaim history while writing poetry is to continue to affirm each other in that way. I think that there’s a lot of ways that people make space to have time to do the writing. So they’ll go on retreats, I’ve been to Napa Valley Writer’s Conference, or the Community Writers at Squaw Valley for example. I think that those can be really generative weeks of writing for people where they also find other readers and other people they can connect with, and they actually connect with poets and teachers they admire.
I’ve always come back feeling refreshed and feeling like I can have a new relationship with poetry again. Kundiman has been a really instrumental organization that has welcomed me and helped me hone my craft over the years. I actually went to a Kundiman retreat between my MFA years, and that was really meaningful to me when I was still sort of navigating what it means to be public writing inside of an institution, what it means to be struggling in your city financially.
I have entered many different spaces, and I’ve also taken steps to just apply to things without expecting anything in return. I was told by one of my teachers at NYU, Brenda Shaughnessy, that never X yourself out and always put your name in the hat. So I took that to heart because I didn’t want to reject myself or these opportunities before I could actually try. That’s something too, I think is useful to keep in mind and just goes along with what we were just talking about regarding affirmations.
Speaking of not ‘x’ing’ yourself out, how do you feel when you won the 2015 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship [for Year Zero]?
That was really exciting. I couldn’t believe it at first. I got an email about it, and I was like, wait, is this real? Then I started screaming. It was just such an exciting thing to happen. I just remember the year before, I had submitted some poems to the contest and it was rejected and then I didn’t want to submit again. The following year, I was like crying. I was like, “oh, I don’t want to do this again.” At the time rejections just felt really, it made me feel very blah.
Then I submitted my thesis manuscript, I was working with Kimiko Hahn, my thesis advisor, and I was a bit like bookmaking how do you create something that feels cohesive? So I felt a little bit more confident admitting that I was just anticipating a rejection. But then when I got that email that said congratulations, your manuscript was selected by Marilyn Chin for the Chapbook Fellowship. I was really excited. And then even when I did the PSA reading with the other winners, I didn’t really know, it felt really special. I felt really special.
But then I also didn’t really know what having a Chapbook meant for me at that time. I had been looking at a lot of my other poetry friends and their Chapbooks they would do their tours, and they would schedule readings within different cities and stuff like that. I didn’t really have the opportunity, it was in print run of 500 copies, and then it was sold out within a couple of months. So I was like, “whoa, people are reading this, why?” I just-
[Refering to Year Zero] It’s incredible, really.
Thank you, and it’s a really exciting thing. Every time someone says, “Where can I find Year Zero?” I have to be like, “Oh there’s no more left, so I can send you a PDF.” It’s not as good as a physical copy, but I’m really proud of how far I’ve been able to come since the Chapbook. I do have some poems from the Chapbook in the first book and then some poems, they are just for the Chapbook. So, it’s interesting to see what I’ve been able to take and mold into the making of my first book too.
Can you tell us a bit about your relation process because right now you have brought it up a couple of times before, and I was just wondering how do you know when a poem that you put aside awhile is ready to come back out?
Some poems have taken me many years to write. I just remember writing a poem about reading; about my father teaching me how to read. That was just a really hard poem to write and it ended up being, “ABC for Refugees.” I would be looking through old papers that I was preparing to move, taking things from my parents’ house in Pennsylvania to California. I was looking through my papers from my time living in DC, and I saw that I had taken a poetry workshop with Gayle Danley, and Gayle Danley had this thing called Wine, Women, and Words. It was one of the first writing groups that I was a part of. It was just very much a thing that I got to be part of that. I think that Split This Rock actually hosted this. So we would go to Split This Rock foundation, and we would have wine, and we would talk about poetry.
I remember seeing this Cherub-bee-dee, Cherub-bee-dum, but it was spelled differently in this first draft. And I was just like, Wow, this poem’s took me six years to write then. It was that far that I was planting a seed for that poem. Yeah, it was just really cool to see how the poem just evolved. And then the next draft it was like trying to write about my father teaching me how to read, and then the next draft is something different. It took me doing a reading in Brooklyn, I think it was at the Empire Reading Series, and I didn’t know Marwa Helal at the time, but she had come up to me and she said she really liked that poem about reading and it had the Cherub-bee-dee, Cherub-bee-dum in it and I felt really encouraged by that. So again, affirmation, community, right? I felt really encouraged by Marwa Helal to continue on writing that poem.
So then I pushed a little bit more, especially when I worked with Ilya Kaminsky. She helped me to revise that poem and got it to where it needed to be. He helped me be more playful for that poem, he just helped me to pride myself more with language. It ended up being like, Cherub-bee-dee, Cherub-bee-dum. How does a man who doesn’t speak English well, how does he know that those aren’t really words-bee-dee. But birds. And then it just broke open, you know, and I took a lot of time in a lot of people’s eyes and help.
One of the things I really picked up on was the importance of the cooperation and community more than poetry.
I’m very grateful for the literary friendships I have in which you don’t always talk about poems as well, but we again continue to affirm each other, which helped those critical space for the creative process or the work.
I think that just being a Cambodian girl in this world, I often have felt really invisible and lost in stone, as my history has just been really pushed to the side and condensed to America’s sideshow in the Vietnam war. So having people in my life who are able to say, Oh, I see you. Just keep telling your story to keep writing. I’m really proud of you etcetera. Being this and that or that was a great poem. Thank you for sharing that. You know that these are ways of affirming each other. It doesn’t have to be like, okay, we meet every single Thursday and we’ll talk about your manuscript. It doesn’t have to be that structured, right? It’s just these little notes that I get from people, from poets or not. That’s just people who say, I see you.
The first time I ever got published online was through the Asian American writer’s workshop and from that publication there as a reader who reached out to me, another kind woman who was writing and that was the way to find community. With publications, I’ve been able to connect with a lot of people. I think that is an easy way to describe what community can feel like, to be seen, to be held, just to be able to see how people do feel reflected, and they feel like they can also reach out to me and talk to me about these things. That’s something that I find to be really endearing and exciting, because like I said, had grown up really isolated, so having poetry connecting me to the community. I hope that with the book coming out like it’ll just continue to grow.
That’s it for our interview with Monica. So up next I let my Co-host, Shalvi, discuss her time talking with fiction Judge Akil Kumarasamy.
Shalvi Shah: Hey guys, I’m Shalvi. I’m the Online Fiction Editor for the Columbia Journal, and I’m also in the MFA program at Columbia University for fiction. Today, I want to talk to you guys about my conversation with Akil Kumarasamy. As you know, she’s the fiction judge for the fall of 2019 contest for the Columbia Journal.
Akil is a writer from New Jersey. Her debut short story collection, Half Gods, is a beautiful piece of work that I recommend everyone to read. It was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and her work has also appeared in numerous magazines like Boston Review, Harper’s magazine, American Short Fiction, and many more.
She’s a visiting professor in fiction at the Helen Zell Writer’s Program currently, and she’s also received a fellowship from the University of East Anglia, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Yaddo and the Schomburg Center.
I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions, and from her previous interviews, especially the interview that she had with Sara Novic, she mentioned how much she likes other creative arts media, such as painting and films. She mentioned film in an interview with Sara Novic.
In the interview, she said how she liked the immediacy of the language that screenwriting and playwriting provides. Whereas when one is reading fiction, they have to create their own language visually inside their head while they’re reading. But because there’s a budget when you are screenwriting, you have to do a lot of close editing, and have to choose words, and choose scenes very economically. And she said that’s great practice for editing your own work.
So I asked her what are some of her favorite filmmakers and directors. She said that it’s difficult to list them all, but here are a few of her favorites: Agnes [inaudible 00:18:51]. She said she was particularly influenced by these.
I also had the opportunity to ask her what the most humbling aspect of getting published is, and how it has affected her writing process. And she said that she thinks she has a more expansive view on the writing process. That writing is not just sitting at your desk, but being out and about in the world and spending time with people who are part of it. I really appreciated that advice as a writer, because I take the opportunity to travel as much as I can, and I can certainly say that it makes my language richer and gives so much more perspective, so much more culture, and so much more immediacy to my own language. So that’s a piece of advice that I heartily believe in, and I feel like every other writer, beginner or professional, should also believe in.
Her debut short story collection is a group of interlinked stories about the Sri Lankan diaspora and the Tamil genocide that happened in Sri Lanka. All of the short stories, as I said, are interlinked and focused on memory, and violence, and loss. A lot of her stories just break the English language beautifully.
I noticed how violence is transcribed in the memory of the characters in the different short stories in, Half Gods. I asked her what care she took while writing these stories in order to honor the violence of the human condition, and she said something that I think is extremely profound. She said that she was always questioning how one writes about violence without being exploitative, but also how one goes about writing about it imaginatively. She said that it at times, feels too unwieldy and overwhelming, and she thinks that in her work she might follow single family, but it speaks to the collective lines, like in the short story, “The Office of Missing Persons.”
She’s also aware of how humor is used to cope through violence, and can also make the horrific resonate more deeply. I was struck by this in two ways. First, how she really understands how to honor violence in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky. And second, how she uses other facets of the human condition, like humor, like connection, and how she uses those techniques, those realities of humanity in order to give even more gravity to the violence in her work. So I think using humor is, definitely if done correctly, a great way to preserve this violence in memory.
The family in Half Gods, in my opinion, have had so much hardship done onto them. But in each of the stories, there’s this sparkling message of hope that does come through, and you must read the book in order to discover how this part comes through.
It was really great for me to be able to ask her these questions, and I hope that all the submissions that we’ve received for the fiction contest are given the same amount of honor and respect that they deserve and to Akil and through her dedicated authorship, and her writing experience.
I hope you guys enjoy the rest of the podcast.
That does it for our first episode of the Columbia Journal podcast. We plan to eventually launch on iTunes, so keep an eye out for the official announcement. And don’t forget to visit columbiajournal.org to read our online content and information about submitting. Our print issues can be found at stores like Book Culture in New York City, or ordered through our submittable account. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook at Columbia Journal, and on Instagram at columbia_journal.
A remix of the song, Someone Else’s Memories, by Revolution Void was used under a creative commons attribution’s license via freemusicarchive.org.
Thanks for listening.