Genny Lim, Poet and Beyond
The following is a comfusion e-mail interview with Genny Lim. Conducting the interview through email gives the respondent a chance to consider the question, yet due to the informal nature of email, the interview doesn't lose that bit of personality and spontaneity captured face to face.
Jaime Wright: Are you currently working on anything?
Genny Lim: I have begun research for a book I would like to write about the Chinese of Indonesia.
Wright: Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? (i.e., woman, Chinese American, American, San Franciscan, etc.) Have you been termed a certain type of poet by others? If so has it frustrated you or has it reinforced your own feelings on who you are as a poet?
Lim: Types. I don't think in terms of types. I am what I am. Chinese, American, woman--not in that particular order, mind you. I could have said it the other way around as well. Labeling is a preoccupation of mass media, marketers, and politicians who need to classify their products or politics for consumers and constituents. Culture changes all the time because circumstances and people change. It would be pointless to pigeonhole me or my work because my work is so different than what it was before.
My priority has never been to fit in a particular box. I don't know what others say about me or my work. If I did it would probably make me too self-conscious. I haven't tried to cater to a particular taste or audience. The frustration in that comes in not having a niche. People like to inhabit niches in this country. There exists a kind of cultural apartheid. I find that so limiting. Either you're jazz or avant or new age or hip-hop or ethnic or whatever. I guess it makes people comfortable to know they belong somewhere or other. For me, I've always crossed over in my relationships, aesthetics, and interests. Maybe too much so. That comes perhaps from being raised in a first generation immigrant home with five siblings, who spanned the cultural spectrum from Perez Prado and Frank Sinatra to Eric Dolphy and Elvis. It's more of a process of integration for me. How you take in everything around you and make it part of your own psychic landscape. If I stay in one place too long, I get crazy bored. My muse is movement. Change and renewal.
Wright:The first time I came in contact with your work was at San Jose State. You performed with the Eddy Gale Jazz Ensemble. So my first contact was
with you was as a performance poet and then I bought your book, Winter Place.
Is there any difference between Genny Lim the performance poet and Genny
Lim the poet of written word?
Lim: That's a good question. You can probably answer that better than me. I consider myself an aural poet. Even when I'm writing I'm hearing my voice. Sometimes the voice feels as if it's coming from somewhere or someone else. "Dropping down the well," I think is how Julia Cameron describes the creative process. The deeper you sink your Qi or root energy into the core of your being the more aspects of your hidden self you uncover.
My teacher Shri Karuna Mayee says that the Eastern voice is round and deep. When a classical Indian singer begins he or she always tunes him/herself by vocalizing the low tones. Writing affords me this same avenue to drop into empty space and follow my voice wherever it takes me--rhythmically, melodically, tonally, texturally, emotionally, structurally--because it's a solitary practice. A meditation with words. Performing live, on the other hand, is a co-creation in the sense that I am not a solo artist creating in solitude. I am engaging with the musicians' and the audience's energy. That synergy is critical to the performance. It can't happen without it. It's the social dynamic that is key to what makes live poetry. I'm a people person. A performance junkie. I love communing with an audience through music and poetry.
Wright: Are there truths in the sound of poetry that are lost when poetry is read silently? Are there poems that are meant to be read in silence, perhaps a silent meditation on meaning, that don't need to be read out loud? What kind of poems do you write? Which ones do you prefer?
Lim: I don't think the truth of poetry can be lost in silent reading, no more than it can be cornered out loud. Like the Buddha said, there are as many ways to hear the Dharma as there are individual capacities to understand it. Ten people can read the same poem and come up with ten different interpretations of it. I do agree however, that there are poems, due to various factors such as density of their abstract ideas or imagery, abstruseness or linguistic idiosyncrasies that might lend themselves better, to reading and re-reading. As well, there are poems that are conundrums, like koans or minimalist like haiku, meant for spiritual contemplation.
Wright: In the NOV/DEC issue of Poets & Writers there is an interview with Yusef Komunyakkaa wherein he says of Robert Hayden, "Here is this great American Voice--An American presence that should even be more than what it is--hidden in the African-American section."
Do you agree with this point of view when it comes to defining a type of poet, is it limiting to the poet?
Lim: As I said before the marketplace is antithetical to art. Historically we were confined to ghettos such as Chinatown, Bayview-Hunters Point, J-Town, the Mission, etc., now we've graduated to the academic and literary ghettos such as "Asian-American, African-American, Native-American, etc. We get trapped in our own political agendas behind the labels and no matter how the political winds turn we are still trapped.
We graduated from colored, to Negro, to Black, to Afro, to African-American, from Indian to Native-American to American-Indian, and Asians, who were once Orientals are now Asian-Americans, etc. It's like the dog chasing its tail. As long as the same categorical biases are still in place, whatever name we choose will still be inferior. If all the "rainbow" writers are stacked on "rainbow" shelves in the basement or the back of the store on consignment, it's still a no-win victory. If an alien came to earth, he'd ask, "Are you a human?" not "Are you a Black human or a White human?"
Wright:When doing a bit of research to find an Asian Poet in the American Canon that I could compare to the example of Robert Hayden I noticed that there is only one Asian Poet who has been included in the canon, Li Young Lee (originally from Indonesia). How do you feel about the lack of Asian or more specifically Chinese-American poets in the American Canon?
Lim: This comes as no surprise. In my generation there has been no significant shift in the mainstream confusion about what is Asian and Asian-American. People seem to understand why an African is not the same as an African-American, but for some reason, Westerners still hold fast to their romanticization of Asians being intrinsically Eastern. I've had people not know how to react to my poetry because my "voice" seemed so "Un-Asian" to them. When I come out blasting with a poem about rage or violence they are often perplexed, even offended. That's the type of attitude they'd expect from a Black poet but not an Asian poet. It's all a product of this labeling again that's at the crux of racism. In the literary and music industry it's a question of commodification through economic stratification. If there's no slot for you because you don't figure as a bona fide "Asian" and you don't fit their idea of "language," or "alternative" or "Jazz," then you're an anomaly, a miscellaneous person. But I'm used to this "comfusion." As long as you're clear on what you're trying to do it's not on you to define what others perceive.
Wright: Were you inspired at all by Li Young Lee or any other poets of Asian descent? Who are your influences?
Lim: While I've absorbed the rhythms, vernacular, and themes of the urban moderns, with a period of confessionalist women like Plath and Sexton, a heavy dosage of jazz from musicians I hung out with in New York during the early seventies, and seminal blues poets like Langston Hughes, Imiri Baraka, and Gwendolyn Brooks, I'll have to confess that my profound spiritual influences come more from ancient mystics of the East like Tu-fu, Basho, and Rumi.
Li Young is a wonderful poet and his work deeply reflects his affinity for Chinese poetry, consistent with western expectations. Because we Asian-Americans have been uprooted from our source for several generations here, we are always looking back to the distant homeland for spiritual sustenance. For that reason we look further than our own peers for excavation of our identity. If you're lost you don't go to someone else who's lost to find the way do you?
Wright: Did reading a poem first spark the desire to write poetry or was it an experience?
Lim: I was writing a lot of poems that were political and personal and it was just a matter of how to make my statements sound fresh. It became harder and harder after a time to interest myself let alone others. I went underground to figure it out and did nothing much except to read books that had eluded me through my western education. I read the Upanishads from the Vedas, which blew my mind, and I read translations of the Lotus, Diamond, Heart, and Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutras. I read the songs of Milarepa, an eleventh century Tibetan yogi, which were extemporaneously sung spiritual teachings. They were all written in verse poetry and for the first time in my life I felt a profound connection with my cultural identity as an Asian and a validation of my voice as an Asian-American. I can't describe exactly what that moment ignited, but it was a combination of meditation, connection with spiritual teachers, and a realization of the sacred power of the word that gave me a whole new outlook.
Wright: In Vine Deloria, Jr's book, God is Red: A Native View of Religion, he states the following argument:
Which approach more clearly defines your approach to the creative process?
Could you explain your reasoning in terms of your poem, "Ahmisa" (time oriented) vs.
your poem "Winter Place" (placed locally)?
Lim: The Native American view of nature as a continuous, cyclic process has always resonated with me much more than the Christian linear view of reality as historical chronology beginning with the creation and culminating with the end of the world. Hegel said we lived under constant tyranny of history. I would add that we live under constant tyranny of death. There is an implicit collusion with historical events beginning with original sin, followed by the crucifixion of Christ, which condemns man to perpetual sin. In Buddhist cosmology there are countless worlds co-existing simultaneously in the three times: past, present, and future. These are intersecting realities existing within our relative experience of physical space and time. This corresponds with the Native American description of three interlocking worlds, lower, middle, and upper. When these realms are balanced and in harmony we are happy and well. When not, we can wreak havoc. Through a process of transformation and healing, self-liberation can take place.
My poem, "Ahimsa" recreates the self-intoxicating power of our negative projections: "I walk with a gun, a gun to my head, a gun to my heart, with a gun, with a gun, with a gun, gun, gun, gun, gun . . ."
We constantly recite mantras, whether we realize it or not and mantras generate power. Unfortunately many of our mantras reify our negative emotions like hatred, jealousy, greed, and lust; these emotions in turn become manifested in violent actions against other people. War is the common global symptom of our collective negative karma. We demonize the "other" so that we can rationalize our ability to harm, kill, and destroy. If the victim is human that would be murder, but if he is a monster then we are actually engaging in an act of heroism. If, from a distance, someone sees a twisted rope as a venomous snake, there's no convincing that person the snake is all in his mind.
I recite the names of great nonviolent teachers of our times, like Gandhi, who have the spiritual wisdom and vision to cut through enormous political bullshit and see the root of the problem and then, to commit to ending the cycle of destruction through unwavering compassion and nonviolent action. This of course can only be achieved with enlightened spiritual authority. Ordinary people are too caught up in mental confusion to ever see the big picture.
"Winter Place" is specifically located in place and time. While it looks at time and place, it is rooted in a narrative framework. "Winter Place" is emblematic of an identity constructed by places, objects, and people that inhabit a particular bygone era. This mixed gentrified, yuppified, bohemian/ immigrant old shadow of a new world. It's also a lament the way that "Ahimsa" is a lament, but in a very different way, because it's much more personal and sentimental. "Ahimsa" is unsentimental, almost cold and detached in its incantatory tone.
Wright: All in all your newer poetry seems to be reaching out toward some universal, such as "Ahmisa" and "Bardo," this is different from the poetry in Winter Place, with poems such as, "Grandmother," "Portsmouth Square," "Song for Colette," and even "The Other Side" which all display specific relationships, people, places. What is triggering this shift in your poetic focus?
Lim: I think the big difference between my newer poems such as "Ahimsa" and "Bardo" in contrast to poems in Winter Place, like "Grandmother" and "Portsmouth Square" is that they deal with relationships a bit differently. "Ahimsa" and "Bardo" looks at the world from a more philosophical, less personal place. It tries to come to terms with the world in a form that is less autobiographical, less self-generated. Winter Place looks at the world from my alley window. Some of the newer stuff is trying to pull away from this narrow window and to see things from a broader or as you call it, more "universal" perspective. I'm not saying this is preferable, I'm just not inclined to crawl into the exclusive universe of my own skin and see everything from that side the way I was conditioned to.
Wright: What is it that draws you to Jazz so much? Not only do you invoke the names of Miles, Coltrane, Parker, etc. in your written word you also use jazz or bluesy tones in your performances.
Lim: Jazz more than any other western art form has sustained the purity of the creative impulse. The art of improvisation that lies at the heart of this creative music has challenged its artists to maintain the highest standards of spontaneous composition and collaboration. There is little room for contrivance or rote when a live solo is in progress. The written musical composition is a launch pad for a journey into space. That space is three-dimensional sound. We cannot predict the notes before they're played nor what the notes will uncover, no more than we can predict the exact location of a shooting star once it lands. Pioneers like Miles, Coltrane, Parker, and Cecil Taylor are like our astronauts. They charted a whole new course for generations of musicians to come. They described new galaxies of sound.
As a performing poet, I never want to use the written word as a literal document, but as a jump-off point, like musical notes I must inject with life. My poems are structured like jazz compositions. The jazz and blues I've heard growing up are part of my internal landscape. It's the natural course for my poetic excursions. I'm quite comfortable working with jazz musicians because we share a common language.
Wright: Do you find correlations between Buddhism and Jazz? Chinese culture and African Culture?
Lim: Actually yes. Zen and Tantric Buddhism constantly strive to do away with our conceptions and assumptions and to work directly with our true nature. Jazz takes the form, which is the tune, lays it out once and then turns it on its head. It's an act of faith to know that once you've left the safety of the melodic framework, you're going to be able to keep the tempo going and still take a flying leap into the unknown. The trick is it's all happening inside you. Buddhism and jazz both hinge on creative improvisation, which could be called mindfulness, or being in the moment. Jazz is taking risks. Buddhism is trusting in your Buddha Nature.
Funny you ask about Chinese and African culture. I recently collaborated with Jon Jang and James Newton on the cantata, "Songline: The Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson Jr. and Mei Lanfang." Most people have heard about Paul Robeson, (another great artist of our time who was not only marginalized, but blacklisted for his political activism) but no one in the country has heard of Mei Lanfang, the greatest Chinese opera actor of all time. What we discovered was the common thread that linked these two men spiritually and philosophically. Both African and Chinese spirituality center on ancestral worship. Lineage is very important to both cultures. In addition, African pantheism and Chinese Taoism center on being in harmony with nature and the universal flow. Taoist rituals focus on mediating between heaven and earth and African rituals focus on mediating between the invisible spirit and the human world.
Wright: Do you think the chiding of Asians by people such as Howard Stern or by cartoons such as, Mr. Wong (icebox.com) encourage or reinforce racism, or do they help to relieve the racial tensions that are ignored by the language and attitude of political correctness?
Lim: Sorry, I'm not current on media controversies. I have no idea what Howard Stern said about Asians and I have to confess my ignorance of Mr. Wong as well. There's a fine line between political correctness and paranoia. On the other hand, racist stereotypes are all too often passed off as harmless jokes in the media at the expense of innocent people. If entertainers, politicians, and other high-profile people insist on making ethnic minorities the butt end of their jokes, they should be prepared for the consequences.
Wright: What goal do you seek through your poetry, to discover, to influence, to re-vision history?
Lim: Illumination. Poetry gives us a glimpse at the sublime as well as the ridiculous. It's a two-way street into the ephemeral realm of the human mind. Like blowing smoke on a windowpane. Your breath leaves the imprint of your existence for only a split moment before it evaporates without a trace. Like our lives.
I used to believe in the importance of history. Now I'm less concerned about re-shaping the myths than living my truth. Let the pundits and textbook writers revise history as they so desire. What matters is how one thinks and acts now in spite of history, in spite of politics. The cynicism of our times is due to an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for our global degradation. We're always reacting to what the media, what the experts, what the others say or do. Taking control of your life is about examining your self and then setting things right. That's more empowering than trying to change others.
Wright: Are you only retelling the story of specific people in poems such as, "Atsuko," "Grandma's Portrait," "Looking Glass," or are you accessing archetypes of the modern landscape? What role does the folklore of Chinatown and San Francisco play in your poetry, or your approach to poetry?
Lim: Atsuko and Grandmother are folk heroines. Folks who will never figure into a Who's Who of rich or famous people. They are among the legions of invisible people who in their own time and place wield an immense influence on the people in their own lives. I've always had an affinity for everyday working people. I guess that comes from my working class roots. My father emigrated to the U.S. from China as a young boy without his mother and he struggled just to stay alive. He once worked as a janitor at the Fairmont and brought home little pastries and carpet scraps from the main lobby, thick black pile with magenta fleur de lys. My mother was a piece-working seamstress for Fritzi's and sewed into the wee hours of the morning.
Paul Robeson was someone who understood the unacknowledged debt the world owed to the workingman and woman. He was the most effective labor advocate of any artist in history. He sang work songs from the south and treated the African spiritual with dignity and respect.
When I heard the wooden fish songs from the peasant villages of Southern China, I thought I was listening to the blues of the Deep South. The five-toned scale is as ancient as early man and that link between Africa and China, through the pentatonic scale still remains. The irony is that old traditions have been preserved not among the seat of royalty or among the capitals' well-heeled, but among the poor, downtrodden peasants in remote deltas, tundra, and valleys.
It is their voices I listen for, their singing I hear, and their wailing I carry in my belly.
Wright: What advice do you have for young poets/writers?
Lim: Imitate the best, then forget about it and everything you've ever learned and start from there.