The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan about her poetry collection Bear, Diamonds and Crane.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
Brian S: Well, even though it’s just the three of us right now, we should probably start talking about the book.
Camille D.: I’m just down the street from Stanford. The game’s on in the room I’m in.
Claire: That’s right. You’re in California. Where I’m from!
Camille D..: I know! I recognized so much of the landscape of CA. An emotional landscape.
Claire: Yes, Northern Calif. is an emotional landscape for me and my family.
Brian S: One of the few places I’ve lived where I would gladly move back, if I could afford it.
Claire: I’m in Houston, but my heart will always be in California.
Brian S: And Houston is, coincidentally enough, where I was born, though I moved from Texas when I was young.
Claire: Yes, I would love to live there if I could afford to and if my husband and I could find good paying jobs.
Camille D.: How about we start with that question. The loss in these poems is so palpable, but at the same time, there is this very present presence of past and place.
Claire: Yes, and hopefully there’s a sense of the future.
Camille D.: There is a sense of future. Especially with all those mentions of of your niece and nephew. I found those really interesting.
Claire: I wrote this book with them in mind.
Camille D.: Can you speak more about that?
Claire: They will have questions about our family.
Well, my father passed away on Sept. 27th, 2011. Vince and Emma know that Grandpa lived at Manzanar. I want them to know their family history. My mother’s parents were very good about telling me about their history. But in 2011, it’s difficult to sit the two down and say, “Let me tell you about our family. . .”
It just doesn’t happen that way. At least not in conversations.
Camille D.: Oh my goodness, Claire, that was so recent. My deep condolences to you. I’m actually amazed by your ability to be so clear headed in writing when you were in the midst of dealing with the loss so immediately.
Brian S: I liked the way you dealt with how kids pick up on things even when you don’t tell them, like in “At Seven and Nine, My Niece and Nephew Know.”
Let me add my condolences to Camille’s as well.
Claire: It’s been difficult, but I feel that my father is with my mother. He’s where he should be.
My parents were very close. They shared the same birthday. Sept. 21st.
Camille D.: I’ve been talking a lot to people about the need for poetry. One of the reasons I’ve presented is that it provides language for us in time of trauma or in sacred spaces like memorial services and weddings. But one of the other uses is that poetry can be such a fluent repository for history. It sounds like you have consciously used it in both these ways.
Claire: My father passed away one week after their birthday.
Camille D.: That’s my sister’s birthday, too. Gorgeous spirits came to us on that day.
Claire: Yes. I like the term gorgeous spirits.
Camille D.: You’re welcome to share it.
Brian S: Was there a sense, in that poem, that your mother’s illness caused them to grow up a little more quickly?
Claire: Yes, I do think it caused them to grow up.
Vincent had a profound understanding of my mother’s illness. Emma took a while to understand how serious my mother was. I guess my mother’s passing was their first experience with death.
Camille D.: People often ask me if they should scared about writing about and/or to people who are alive. There’s a real responsibility there. How did you face down that responsibility while you were writing?
Claire: There are things that Vince and Emma may forget with time. I wanted to capture them at certain ages.
Brian S: I would imagine it’s also difficult writing about relatives who have passed, since there’s a desire to tell and hear only the good things about them. Was that an issue for you?
Claire: No. My family embraces the negative and positive qualities of a person. In Snow White you have the seven dwarfs. One is grumpy, sleepy, etc. If someone is grouchy or ill-tempered, they don’t see that as a fault. It’s just the person’s personality. So I was labeled “the sensitive one.” That was who I was.
Brian S: There’s a moment in “Diamonds and Crane” where the conversation goes “Did you look back, did you write back?” and the response is “No. You ask too many questions,” which sort of brings us back to that question of how we tell our children our family stories. That’s always a problem, isn’t it?
Because we as adults don’t always want to give up our secrets.
Camille D.: Is that part of how you come to be able to write in such a balanced manner? I see that as a poetic way of seeing the world, seeing all its nuances. But I think you might be saying there is something perhaps cultural there. Or maybe not cultural but at least part of your family’s world view.
Claire: My grandmother was open about telling us things about my grandfather, but very discreet about her side of the family.
It’s cultural, yes.
Camille D.: And yet, even though you say it’s cultural, you also say you were marked as particularly sensitive.
Claire: I never thought of my writing as “balanced.” That’s interesting.
Yes, I remember that my mother told someone that I was the sensitive one. My mother, by contrast, was tough.
Camille D.: One of the things that drew me to your book is that is seemed to be two sides of the coin all the time. Brief, stanzas, big ideas. Florid descriptions, spare language. Eastern worldviews, Western materials.
Claire: So you mean it’s bi-cultural.
Camille D.: Will you talk a bit about your choice of forms. You range so much. I’m interested how much you are led by form or if the content drives the form or if and how your method varies.
Brian S: I get what Camille is saying, and I feel the same way. I’ve been considering assigning this book for a class I’m teaching in the spring which deals with culture and identity for just that reason.
Claire: I think that content drives the form.
I don’t think of myself as a form driven writer, even though I make use of forms like the villanelle, haiku, sestina. . .
Camille D.: It’s more than just bi-cultural. That suggests the possibility of a duality, and it seems much more than a duality. But, yes, I do think that the writing has been informed by a very Californian world view, but also a worldview that’s beyond CA. Of course, you and I both know that there is no one CA world view. That’s one of the things that is so amazing and maddening about this state.
Brian S: It seems to me that there are some forms better suited to certain subject matters than others–sestinas and villanelles are good for remembrances, for example.
Camille D.: Sestina’s not an easy form to make use of in a casual manner.
Brian S: Florida is similar, Camille, in that there’s not always a group of locals, per se. The effects of the transient populations on the culture are ever-present.
Claire: Sestinas and villanelles are also good for difficult subjects.
Brian S I’ve tried the casual sestina before. It gets ugly pretty fast.
Claire: There’s a hypnotic quality to them.
And there’s power in repeating words and lines.
Brian S: But those transient populations make the overall culture far richer. Give me a diverse culture over a momoculture any day.
Claire: My father liked to say that my first poem or discovery of poetic language happened at church when the priest said, “Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust.” I went around the house chanting that.
Claire: Yes, that’s why I like Houston.
Camille D.: I want to talk about your haiku. It seems like you tend to stick with the 5-7-5 haiku in English tradition. And you have other conventions that you maintain. But you also seem to make your own mark. Did you think about what you wanted from the form, how to make it your own?
Claire: I lived in Charlottesville and was homesick.
Claire: It’s my own because the haiku can be charged with emotion and doesn’t necessarily meditate on a season.
Camille D.: Wow, that Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust story is something. So your initial understanding of language and its potential for beauty was also in direct connection to a kind of understanding of the beautiful power of mortality.
Claire: yes. Death was omnipresent in my life at an early age. Especially with my cousin’s passing.
Claire: I also had animals die.
Camille D.: Central Virginia can make a California girl mighty homesick. It certainly did that for me. Did you find yourself writing directly or indirectly out of that homesickness?
Brian S: Are those the chihuahuas you mentioned in the poem about your neighbor?
Claire: Yes. My dog Lucy (the mother dog) died first. I did not understand death when she died and told my mother I was going to dig up Lucy’s body. I believed that the body survived underground.
Brian S: During the period I was reading your book, I was also watching the Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II, and those moments in your book really hit me hard.
Camille D.: Do you think that poetry provided a repository for your grief, a way to articulate your ideas? Or does that sound too much like poetry as therapy for you? Have you read Alan Shapiro’s amazing essay about poetry and grief?
Claire: I think so. I don’t think it sounds like poetry as therapy.
In college I was really drawn to Gregory Orr’s work.
Camille D.: I thought of Gregory Orr’s work when I was reading your book.
Claire: He wrote a lot about his brother and the accidental shooting that killed his brother.
Brian S: I met him when I was in grad school. His work was so potent.
Claire: I loved his work. He was also one of my teachers. It was a dream to work with him. He believed that some poets start writing because of a wound. I could relate to that.
Brian S: So can I. I haven’t always written about what’s wounded me, but I can’t deny that those things have driven my work at times.
Camille D.: We’ve talked in the group about some writers wondering if they’d make it past that wound ever. “And what if you don’t?” Do you/did you think about such a question?
Claire: I felt that I was writing past the wound when I was working on my second book, and then my mother became ill.
Camille D.: Out of the deepest wound, a new bloom, black ink on beige flower petals. “The Gift of Inheritance”
Claire: The last section was written during her illness between April 8th 2009 and June 2nd 2009.
Camille D.: Sorry, no line breaks. But I loved that so much, I have it written out in my computer, and also, of course, in my little blurb about why I chose the book.
Claire: Yes. I wrote that poem before I realized how true the words would be. Thank you. That’s one of my favorite poems. Homage to Greg Orr, I think. But also homage to my family, esp. my father.
Camille D.: Can you talk a bit about the process of writing in the midst of trauma? So many people feel silenced by events like that, and you are writing right in it, I think I hear you saying. None of that “Emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Brian S: I’ve been writing some poems along those lines myself lately–my dad has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers for about ten years now and I’ve been watching him die from a distance because my only contact with my parents is via email.
Claire: Well, when my mother was ill, I kept a pen and paper near me. I felt almost like I was writing automatically without thinking. I wept a lot while writing those poems.
But lately, I have been unable to write about my father while he was ill and the time after his memorial service. I’ve been numb. Silent.
Brian S: But you still have to write them, right? To make sure that your memory doesn’t betray the moment later on.
Claire: Sure. But I don’t know when.
Camille D.: Brian, I JUST came from a benefit concert for (against?) Alzheimer’s. It was a pretty emotional musical experience. And now this chat. I’ll have some heavy dreams tonight, I’m sure.
Claire: Instead of writing, I find myself praying and going to this one Catholic Church that reminds me of the one my father belonged to. I had a lot of dreams about my mother after her death. She spoke in the dreams. My father has yet to make an appearance.
Camille D..: I don’t know that she “has to write them,” Brian. Maybe the point is some things can’t be written. Or maybe it will come in a long time. Memory is always porous. Even right in the moment.
Were your parents different in that way in life as well?
Claire: Yes. My mother was atheist for a long time and then agnostic before she died. My father was Roman Catholic.
Brian S: Camille, I think that was a case where my reply was just a hair late and a comment got in the middle. Such are the dangers of chats.
Claire: I suppose the Catholic side of me feels I should celebrate my father’s passing, but the Buddhist and Hindu side of me doesn’t want to
Camille D.: And in terms of their communication with you? Might their difference in life have something to do with your different relationships with their deaths?
Claire: My mother wasn’t sure she believed in an after life. My father believed that the after life was the greatest of all experiences. But again, I feel that they are together. There was a radiant light in their house after my father died. Everyone attributed that to their reunion.
Camille D.: That gave me chills, Claire. The good kind. Beautiful.
Claire: I feel them in my house. I do feel that they are both listening when I talk to them. People have said that I can talk to them in poems.
Brian S: The final poem of the book seems to me to look forward, as if you are taking your mother’s place in the family. It’s beautiful, the images so palpable. I don’t have a question really–I just love it.
Claire: But I’m not there yet.
Camille D..: It seems like you are not so much silent as receptive right now.
Claire: I never thought of myself taking my mother’s place. That’s interesting. I’m the youngest sibling . So it’s odd to think of myself in that light. I think of myself right now as the Aunt who can answer questions about family history.
Brian S: It’s the direct address to the child, I guess, and the fact that I don’t know anything about your personal history outside of what I’ve read in the book, that makes me think that.
Claire: Oh yes. The direct address to the child is to the next generation, but I also told the audience at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop that it was an apostrophe to my future child.
I guess that sounds strange.
Camille D.: It seems like your commitment to speaking history is tied directly with your willingness to face loss.
Brian S: Not at all.
Claire: As the child has yet to be conceived.
Yes, I do think loss is part of the natural order of things. It’s life. That’s why it’s so important to embrace the joyous moments.
Brian S: And yet, while you speak history, you never seem to lapse into nostalgia, which is really important to me. It’s yet another reason why I respect this book so much.
Claire: Thank you. My niece and nephew know they are part Japanese. I very much want them to know what their heritage means.
Camille D.: I agree with Brian. And I also find it important that you make a national (international) history so personal.
Brian S: Because nostalgia strikes me as inherently false. That’s what I was referring to about your need to write those poems about your mother’s illness in the moment.
Claire: I guess it was survival too.
Camille D.: We’re getting close to the top of the hour. Is there anything you really want to say or discuss?
Brian S: Absolutely.
Camille D.: Can you expand on the survival statement?
Claire: I have a need to write. It’s less about desire. It’s more about need and duty and familial obligation. I don’t write art for art’s sake.
Camille D.: Writing is sacred?
Claire: Yes It’s a gift. I’m always thinking of my family when I write. Especially my mother’s father who wanted to write but only had an 8th grade education. I became a writer for him.
Brian S That’s interesting, because when I think of the need to write, it’s a personal need, whereas you’re describing it as something you’re driven to by an outside force almost.
Camille D.: You’ve done honor to his legacy and memory.
Claire Yes. I believe my relatives and ancestors help me.
Claire: Thank you.
Brian S: I agree with Camille, and I’d also like to thank you for joining us this evening. I wish we’d had a larger turnout, but I’m very happy with the conversation we had.
Claire: Thank you very much.
Camille D.: This conversation is so interesting, but unfortunately I have to walk away from the computer now. Thank you, Claire, for your insightful and honest responses.
Claire: Thank you both.
Camille D.: I think we had a beautiful conversation. Sometimes a cozy chat is a gift. We were able to linger on big ideas longer. Thanks for being so open, Claire.
Claire: You’re welcome. Good night.