By Jon Riccio
Lo Kwa Mei-en is a poet from Singapore and Ohio. She is the author of two full-length books of poetry, THE BEES MAKE MONEY IN THE LION (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) and YEARLING (Alice James Books), and two chapbooks. She has received a fellowship from Kundiman, and her MFA from The Ohio State University. You can find her at www.lokwameien.com.
Jon Riccio: Like an alphabet gemologist, you imbue the abecedarian’s every facet with a leonine gleam – backwards, forwards, end-lettered, and inside out. Why does this poetic form appeal so strongly to you?
Lo Kwa Mei-en: I love that the abecedarian is both formulaic—in the most boring sense of the word—and alchemical, in the most unpredictable sense of the word. The abecedarian takes me to the dictionary—which is on a basic level a mammoth book, a place for a bookworm to lose herself—and the form gets me lost, runs me into dead ends, necessitates that I look beyond the first answer that came to mind. The abecedarian is deceptively permissive and deceptively limiting. I decided to double-end most of the forms that I borrowed for this book so that I would more continually confront the specific way in which that form demanded I reach.
JR: The Bees Make Money in the Lion’s introductory poem tells us “My sword is honey,” “My gun is honey whipped mean,” after “the gold/ of earth confirmed, softer than my face but faster/ than a finger in suburbia licking off disaster’s/ Hello.” Is it in poetry’s best interest that calamity be so welcoming?
LKM: I don’t think it is in anyone’s best interest that violence is seductive. My life’s work will most likely, I have come to accept, take place in the poetic landscapes in which we are all wrestling with the different and sophisticated forms of violence with which we have come to coexist and which are sometimes too painful to look at directly. For better or for worse, I spend more time than I once thought normal looking directly at the violence inside me, and at the ways I have accepted its suggestions without question throughout my life. What I question is how this part of me should be directed to manifest in my art. More specifically, I have been asking myself whether it is in poetry’s best interest that I write calamity as, for example, welcoming. Should the answer be No, as I often think it is, the testing ground for my strength as a poet will be whether I can continue to write poetry outside such a framework. If I didn’t or couldn’t, I would like to use the time and energy and privilege I have been afforded so far in the poetry world to make more space and resources available to poets whose work I believe to be in poetry’s and the world’s best interest.
JR: Divided into five parts – “The Colonists,” “The Daughters,” “The Lionshare,” “The Queens,” and “The Citizens” – your book is an apiary of sorts. How does each section of the hive inform the next?
LKM: The Bees Make Money in the Lion was originally structured in three sections. The first contained all the poems from “The Daughters” and “The Queens,” the second contained “The Lionshare,” and the third contained the poems from “The Colonists” and “The Citizens.” The reason I broke from that structure was because it grouped every poem according to the formal strategy with which I had learned what the poems had to say. All the poems that featured end-rhyme were grouped together, as were the abecedarians. Splitting those sections, and reversing the order in which the reader encounters them as the book progresses, allowed me to say something new by positioning the different formal projects (and their differing themes) as relevant to each other as well as stand-alones. I wanted the thread I had started with—one that linked science-fiction autobiography to dangerously gendered allegory to Biblical elegy—to be more visible to the reader, and to encourage an experience of eventually returning to a world of the book that we might have thought we could leave behind.
JR: In “Sonnet with Media Cycle” you explore the “M” word with sci/fi delight: “Marry me, but say my skirt was like a rocket hithering.” “Marry me in subsidized white, a bride of tomorrow/ qua tomorrow.” “Marshall me in red, red, red, and sit tight as a white raj/ come to my planet to evangelize the sofa.” The difference an end-syllable makes! At what point do poems in received form buckle under the matrimony of constraint?
LKM: I think it has buckled when the reader says it has buckled, and sometimes, that reader has to be the poet. The only indication I have that a poem is becoming lost in its constraints is how I feel when I’m working on it. Usually I try to get to a point where the poem is beholden to forces besides constraint such that I become viscerally distracted from the crafting process. In “Sonnet with Media Cycle,” though, I was trying to push the formulaic origin of the piece as far as I could go without boring myself. I decided that having feelings such as anxiety, claustrophobia, and disagreement for my poem would be acceptable to that specific project, but not boredom. Obviously, my perspective is both limited and intensely invested in the piece, so the risk here was that pushing my engagement as far as I could would satisfy my poetic needs but not a reader’s.
JR: “Babel/Bible” asks “Is a map a mannequin?” Does humanity take its cartography custom-made?
LKM: I am imagining an atelier of ownership. A workshop that creates ownership. What does ownership look like? Maybe we would know if we could fit it on a blank page, chart its features, and draw a boundary around it. If I walk into the atelier of ownership, one of the things I can walk out with is a map.
In trying to imagine a practice of map-making that was not custom-made, I ran into delightful trouble as soon as I wondered for whom or what reason we customize. Mostly I use maps to tell me where I am allowed to go. Where is the map that shows me the spaces from which I am prohibited? One common elementary-grade social studies assignment is to learn how to read the legend of a map; one common feature in their legend is that of the CAPITAL, a community of power and population. But where is the map that shows me the places where vital communities of people once thrived, before the ravages of colonization took them off the map? Where is the map that shows me which structures and civic services were built on the backs of the people who were enslaved to the people who made the map? What is the cartographic art that would persuade me that the maps of genocide and grief are not exactly what I get when I open Google Maps and ask my smartphone to show me the fastest and easiest way home?
JR: The cyborg-lovelorn will appreciate “Aubade Android:” “To empathize with the entry of ASDFGHJ…/ costs but reality is, at last, flesh deep./ X-ray this, motherfucker, socket/ circuit twinned, sex on a memory stick,/ beating man at this bedside.” Which poets get androids in the mood and why?
LKM: I can’t speak for beings other than the android I would be if I were not already a cyborg. My alter-android, Ada, thinks that John Donne really gets the point. More recently and generally, she enjoyed Amanda Ackerman’s The Book of Feral Flora.
JR: You’ve appeared at some pretty interesting literary events, Big Big Mess, The Dollhouse, and a Prince-themed reading among them. What’s the name of a series you would curate?
LKM: The Dispossessed!
JR: How best can we parse the relationship between these lines in your first and last (of eight) poems titled “The Alien Crown?” “I, too, have acted as an America.” “Voltas fail, but here we are, unhurt nowhere,/ editing violence until we dawn.”
LKM: Sometimes I think there is a rooted web of violence that filigrees every cell in the world. This is, in and of itself, the relationship.
But also, the relationship is this: it is crucial to admit to my complicity in the world, but/and it is not enough to admit my complicity in the world.
JR: “Toddlers fumble thru/ veni / vidi / verify but can recite my name / number / allegiance.” Eerie, but nearing truth. Is there any wisdom bees or their keepers can impart to stave our status as drones-in-training?
LKM: A detour—can you and I be certain that our training has not already been completed, and long ago? The line you quoted reminds me of the ways in which children are taught, at a very early age, the values of the hierarchical world in which they are expected to take their place as soon as they acquire societal agency. It might be too late for me to stave off my status as a drone-in-training, but it’s not too late to continue the work of resisting what I have been trained to do.
Drones are male honeybees, and all male honeybees hatch from unfertilized eggs. This means that male honeybees are descended from one female parent, two grandparents, three great-grandparents, and five great-great-grandparents—and if we wanted to determine the number of ancestors belonging to the next previous generation of a drone’s (or a worker’s) ancestry, we could do so by continuing to follow the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence, in which the next number in the pattern can be derived by adding the two numbers that came before it. I take this as a reminder to consider my life as connected to the lives of ancestors—whether biological or not—who came before me. In addition, the ancestral patterns of honeybees remind me of the imaginative possibilities of family structures, and how often I hear difference discussed as something to be tolerated, as if difference is not a prerequisite to our survival.
JR: You forecast the year 2882 as one of “wild diamonds” and “citizeenagers in luv.” Suppose language as we know it were to cocoon in 2016. What’s the biggest surprise awaiting lexicographers upon its rediscovery, 866 years down the road?
LKM: I chose to write about the year 2882 because it will be the millennial anniversary of the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law that prohibited a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the US. In my poem, I write of an Alien Boycott in reference to the fact that immigrants are identified as “aliens,” and to have the privilege of having a green card, as I did, is to have the privilege of having an Alien Registration Card. I cannot express how badly I hope that 866 years down the road, historians will look at the world’s current alienation of immigrants and people of color, and at the language that so easily enables such alienation, and feel horror for what once was, not vindication for what their society is.
But that’s getting ahead of myself, in a way that I am not certain is helpful. Part of the reason why I reached out for the specific poetics of science fiction in this book is because I think science fiction is a medium uniquely equipped to help us get ahead of ourselves while deepening our relationship to the present. Two science fiction books that I offer in answer to this question, therefore, are Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild and China Mieville’s Embassytown. If one accepts the premise that poetry and science fiction can be each other, I recommend Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, too.
Jon Riccio (U of A MFA 2015) is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent nonfiction and craft essays appear at The Grated and Bird’s Thumb. The poetry editor for Fairy Tale Review, he is a past staff member of Sonora Review.