The Rumpus Book Club chats with Mary-Kim Arnold about her debut book, Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, April 2018), exploring adoption through a feminist lens, and dancing on the line between genres.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Melissa Broder, Amy Fusselman, Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, Tom Barbash, Esmé Weijun Wang, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Mary-Kim Arnold about her debut book, Litany for the Long Moment!
Eva Woods: I’m early because I’m so excited about this frickin’ book.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Hi! I’m here!
Eva Woods: Hi, you’re a genius!
Mary-Kim Arnold: OMG, Eva, thank you. You are very kind!
Eva Woods: I really, really enjoyed this book! It struck me how rare it is that we see specifically feminist explorations of adoption and assimilation and ancestry.
Marisa: Good point, Eva. Though I hope this is changing—we’ll be reading Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know for our September Book Club selection, a memoir that also explores the female adoption experience.
Mary-Kim Arnold: (Yes, Eva, I agree and I found feminist thought helpful here—it sort of informed and undergirded the exploration.)
Marisa: Mary-Kim, Litany for the Long Moment was just released on April 1 from Essay Press, following your winning their Open Book Contest in 2016. Can you talk a little about that? Where were you when you found out? What was the process like between winning the award and having the book be released to the world?
Mary-Kim Arnold: I remember exactly where I was. I was with my husband’s family on our annual vacation near a lake in western New York. I got an email from the editor and had to read it several times before it sunk in. It felt very unreal.
Mary-Kim Arnold: This was in August, and the book was scheduled to come out the following year. But through the revision process, I realized there was something that felt like it wasn’t quite working for me, structurally, so I actually asked them to push the publication date back a little so I could work it out.
Eva Woods: Ooh, I love that you did that because the structure of the book is so important.
Marisa: The structure of the book feels perfect. Can I ask what changed structurally from the manuscript that won the contest to the finished book readers will encounter?
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes, the survey questions—as structural devices, which really I can’t imagine not having in place now—came very late in the process!
Mary-Kim Arnold: And full disclosure—in its initial form, the book was actually three linked essays. They circled around the same themes, but they were, at one time, distinct.
Marisa: Wow, I truly can’t imagine the book not having the questionnaire as a structural device, either. I loved the shape the book took as a result.
Mary-Kim Arnold: My editors were amazing through the whole process—so patient! I would keep changing things and they would reread, offer comments.
Eva Woods: The translation materials were some of my favorite jumping off points; were they there from the beginning?
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes, the actual artifacts felt very important—some of which were the only things I had that linked me to my “story”—I knew I wanted to be able to show them somehow—partially because they seemed like these great documents. But then, as I studied the Korean language and issues about language acquisition in adoptees, they became more and more important, not just as objects, but as vital to understanding the questions I was trying to explore.
Eva Woods: I learned Korean in the Army—I was a translator—so I found them really interesting. They’re so different than how I first was exposed to Korean.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Oh! That’s so interesting, Eva. I hope I didn’t mangle any of the language stuff too badly!
Eva Woods: You didn’t mangle a thing!
Marisa: Were Francesca Woodman, Myung Mi Kim, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha always pivotal figures that you were in conversation with?
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes, those women were very much part of the conversation to me! Theresa Cha has been important to me for a long time, Woodman more recently. And the way Myung Mi Kim talks about language and translation and power seemed to tie it all together.
Marisa: Dictée certainly seems like a text that would have resounded significantly, and yes, I studied Kim’s work in graduate school and totally understand the language/translation/power connection. Woodman’s presence did strike me as more unusual.
Eva Woods: Can you tell us a little about how Woodman specifically became important to you? This is my first exposure to her.
Mary-Kim Arnold: So, a friend introduced me to Woodman’s work a few years ago, when there was a traveling retrospective. It was amazing to see the photographs because at the time, I was thinking a bit about “selfie” culture and how it dominated the social media landscape. And then here was Woodman, doing this years before—in this way that was so mysterious and elusive. That got me thinking about women and identity and how we present ourselves, what we keep hidden, etc.
Mary-Kim Arnold: And then—I was working on a book that was actually more about Theresa Cha and Francesca Woodman—I realized that they were both in New York City at the same time—had moved there within a year of each other, and both—tragically—died within a year or so of arriving in New York. so then I just wanted to think about those odd, one-off connections.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I feel like there’s still more to say about the two of them together, as artists…
Marisa: Did you watch that documentary about Woodman? I’m trying to recall the name. I watched it on Netflix a few years ago…
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes! I think it’s just called The Woodmans.
Marisa: Yes! Just looked it up.
Eva Woods: Adding it to my list!
Mary-Kim Arnold: I still have all these notes about the two of them and the years they were in New York. They had similar influences, too—a bit of the surrealists, they both worked in black and white, they both used themselves as the subject of much of their work.
Eva Woods: There were a lot of things about the book—and I hope I’m explaining this decently—that felt somehow found more than invented. The connection between those two artists feels like that, too.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Oh, I like the way you expressed that, Eva. I think so, too. I felt more at times like an investigator than anything else, trying to put together pieces of a puzzle.
Marisa: You have a background in visual art, too. Can you talk about how that shapes your writing? (And whether your writing shapes your art.)
Eva Woods: Also any other visual artists that inspire you in either format?
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes, I would say it’s less a background and more an interest. I don’t have any formal training, but I’ve always been drawn to text and image together.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Someone who influenced some of my thinking was the Korean artist Do Ho Suh. He has these sculptural pieces that are a lot about the notion of “home” and how we visualize it, imagine it. Obviously, this was very resonant, even if just in the background—the sort of white noise behind the book itself.
Mary-Kim Arnold: And Cha herself was a visual artist as well—a filmmaker and a performance artist.
Eva Woods: I just looked up Suh’s work and it’s very cool. Being able to see inside of things we take for granted is resonant to me in context of the book.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I’m glad that’s something that comes to the surface—it felt very much like that—like rebuilding for myself something I felt (perceived or actually) I didn’t quite have.
Eva Woods: Some of the “chapters” or answers or (what do you call them?) were so searing to read, I imagine this must have been very emotional to write. Was it difficult? Cathartic? Both?
Mary-Kim Arnold: It was hard to write, but not exactly in the ways I expected, if that makes any sense. I had real challenges figuring out the structural questions, how to hold it all together, how tightly it needed to be held together, and there definitely were days when the emotional work of the writing felt heavier than others.
I think it was kind of cathartic—it was something I had avoided writing about, head-on, for decades, and I felt like such a cliché, you know—what they say about the thing you are most avoiding writing is the thing that’s most important to write?
I had to come at it from the idea of language—from the idea of image—I had to come at it from different angles because the last thing I wanted was to just say, “I’m sad, pay attention to me.”
Eva Woods: That makes so much sense to me! Did the writing affect your relationship with your family at all?
Mary-Kim Arnold: Well, the people in my family it would most directly have affected, my parents, have both passed, so that—and I hope this comes across the right way—made it somewhat easier, less complicated.
Eva Woods: Absolutely it does.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I still have an aunt, who has been very understanding and supportive.
Mary-Kim Arnold: And my sister, who is not my biological sister—and she has said that we both have our own stories, our own journeys—so for the most part, it has been a pretty supported journey.
Eva Woods: Oh, that’s so good!
Eva Woods: There was one sentence in the book that when I read it I was just shocked that I hadn’t read it before, if that makes sense. “Being visible is not the same thing as being seen.” WHAT A FASTBALL.
Eva Woods: My question about that sentence, and several others that leapt out the same way is—when you were growing up and reading other related narratives from other people, was there something that you wished was talked about that wasn’t?
Mary-Kim Arnold: The visible line was something that arose from the process of sitting with the manuscript for a while—all this looking, all this seeing—all the conspicuousness of being Asian in a white environment. I felt looked at a lot.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Oh, that’s a great question. I think I wanted people to talk about what was left behind. Like the families or mothers or communities that witnessed children being sent away…
Eva Woods: Dude, yes! There’s so much more focus on the adoptee’s destination, and not the place she was adopted from.
Mary-Kim Arnold: With so many adoption narratives during the time I was growing up, all the emphasis was on the happy future—and I can certainly understand why. But the happy future doesn’t erase what came before.
Marisa: We ran an essay in 2016 that got a lot of feedback, both positive and negative. It made some people very angry to be forced to contend with the reality that not all adoptees want to forget there was a before.
Marisa: When the book was finished, did it offer any emotional relief/release? Will these questions continue to linger for you?
Mary-Kim Arnold: YES! I cried for like a day. Not necessarily about the content even, just that I had seen something through to the end of it. And yes, I think often of Mary Ruefle and her idea of the “lifelong sentence”—I feel like I will keep circling these questions in different ways forever.
Eva Woods: One of the things my friends and I talk about a lot is: “What is the central question of your life?” And those just never get answered.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes! the central questions take on different forms in different ways, at different times I think, but I kind of think we keep circling what’s most vital to us.
Marisa: Are you working on a new project now?
Eva Woods: Good question, Marisa! I’m very interested in that, too.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes! I just finished a manuscript of poems/prose—it’s about the Korean War somewhat, and about this ancient Asyrrian queen, Semiramis.
Eva Woods: Those are two very disparate topics, it seems like!
Mary-Kim Arnold: So, it’s about women and war, and the wars women are forced to engage with, and the effect of war on women, etc.
Eva Woods: I love that. That’s a dope idea.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I don’t know. I maybe don’t have my elevator pitch down just right yet. 🙂
Mary-Kim Arnold: One of the ideas, questions of it was: aren’t women at war every day?
Marisa: YES. Just yes.
Eva Woods: The poetry/prose divide is something Marisa and I were just talking about earlier today. Where do you feel you fall on that spectrum?
Mary-Kim Arnold: It’s funny because every time I think I know—like, oh I am more a poet than a prose writer—I kind of end up doing something that takes me a little in the other direction. I really just love the mess of it—the stuff that can’t quite be pinned down, the stuff that slips out of categories.
Eva Woods: I’m a huge fan of dancing on the line.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes! I like that image!
Eva Woods: You mentioned Maggie Nelson in your acknowledgements; she’s another writer who for sure does that dance.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Can I ask what you both are working on, too?
Eva Woods: Oh, I’m too chicken to show anyone anything I write because I’m a baby.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Ha ha! I understand not wanting to show, for sure. But it just means it needs a little more time. 🙂
Eva Woods: That’s very nice to hear, truly. Sometimes I feel like I have something to say and then other times I’m like, shut up and just listen to Frank Ocean, he already said it.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Haha! But no one can say it in exactly the way you can.
Eva Woods: I’m writing a Gothic Romance where death is Frank Ocean. It’s honestly not great but it’s so much fun to work on I don’t care.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Omg, that sounds amazing!
Eva Woods: Marisa is going to the Tin House fancy writer thing!
Mary-Kim Arnold: I know! I’m so thrilled for Marisa!
Marisa: Yes, it’s true. I am going to Tin House, with many thanks to my family, friends, and writing community for helping me afford the opportunity. And, it’s possible there is a certain story/central question I have been avoiding for a looooong time. I’m hoping to shake it loose at Tin House.
Mary-Kim Arnold: YES MARISA, DO IT!
Eva Woods: You’re gonna clobber it!
Marisa: I’ve always identified as a poet and have my MFA in poetry, but am attending for fiction. And, I’m attending a week before my thirty-fifth birthday. And, I did a semester at Reed College during the time in my life I *might* be avoiding writing about so… I’m basically jumping in to the fire?!
Mary-Kim Arnold: YESSSSSSSSS
Marisa: I mean, if not now, when, right?
Mary-Kim Arnold: Exactly.
Eva Woods: The blending of poetry and prose opens so much up in the ways you can think about and approach something, so I think the fiction workshop is going to be killer for you.
Mary-Kim Arnold: And honestly, I think poets make the best fiction writers because they are thinking about language at the level of phrase and sentence.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Haha! Omg, that is a great question!
Mary-Kim Arnold: I think I would have to say Bluets, even though I want to say The Argonauts. I encountered Bluets first, and at a time when I needed it in my bones. I did not even know that I was waiting for that book!
Marisa: OMG that is the best question we’ve ever asked an author. I’d pick Bluets, for what it’s worth, because Bluets lives in my blood, it feels like.
Eva Woods: I’m the lone Argonaut!
Marisa: I knew you were going to pick that, Woods!
Eva Woods: So, I didn’t love Bluets, as gorgeous and jewel-like as it was, but I do love hearing other people’s thoughts on it.
Eva Woods: (Also it’s really easy to mark up so you can compare margin notes with people if you wanna get way, way too intimate.)
Mary-Kim Arnold: Haha! Yes, Eva!
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yeah, I can understand that. I think for me personally so much of a book is about the timing when it lands in your life.
Eva Woods: YES! I have books I read every year because I change so they change.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes, The Balloonists is a great for that! I agree!
Mary-Kim Arnold: What else are we reading that we love these days?
Marisa: R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is at the very top of my (very tall) to-read pile.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Ooh, I want to get my hands on that, too.
Eva Woods: I just finished The Power, which was beautifully done, but I feel it was soft on men.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I will have to look for those, too.
Marisa: I’m going to be studying with Catherine Lacey at Tin House, so I plan to read/reread everything she’s ever written sometime between now and July.
Marisa: Kaveh is a marvel. Hearing him read those poems aloud is… A LOT of feelings.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I can just imagine! I’ve read poems from it but not the whole book—what I’ve read has been devastatingly good.
Eva Woods: He’s also tall and has good hair. I hate him.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Haha! I know. I can tell from photos how tall he is! Not fair.
Eva Woods: It’s not new but I also just read Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, who is the mf-ing GOAT.
Mary-Kim Arnold: ANNE CARSON IS MY GOD.
Eva Woods: I LOVE HER WITH MY LIFE.
Mary-Kim Arnold: SHE STOOD NEXT TO ME AT AWP ONE YEAR AND I NEARLY STOPPED BREATHING.
Eva Woods: Omg
Marisa: Hides in corner and whispers that I still haven’t read Autobiography of Red…
Marisa: It IS in my book pile, though.
Eva Woods: Marisa, you’re going to love it.
Eva Woods: I saw Ross Gay at AWP and *literally ran away* because I love him too much
Eva Woods: Mary-Kim, what are you reading right now?
Mary-Kim Arnold: I just finished Selah Saterstrom’s Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics and I LOVED it.
Eva Woods: Fantastic! Thank you. I will absolutely check it out. Also, I love how many women writers we just shared. I really don’t read that many men and getting recs is hard sometimes!
Mary-Kim Arnold: Also: Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends and Anna Moschovakis’s forthcoming novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love (she’s a poet, primarily).
Mary-Kim Arnold: I’m kind of only reading women for a while.
Marisa: Well, this is the matriarchy after all!
Mary-Kim Arnold: EXACTLY. Although I did read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and liked it way more than I expected to.
Marisa: Ben Lerner is wonderful! He’s going to be at Tin House teaching this summer, too. I am just going to soak up all the genius around me.
Marisa: Since I took over the Book Club, we’ve read only two men, one of whom was Jesse Ball, and he’s one of my most favorite writers.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yeah, I’d make an exception for Jesse Ball, too.
Eva Woods: Paul Lisicky, who you mentioned in your acknowledgments, read at an AWP offsite and I was STUNNED by how much I loved it.
Mary-Kim Arnold: He’s so great! I took a workshop with him at Juniper Summer Writing Institute.
Marisa: Paul’s piece (I was at the reading with Eva) was breathtaking. I told him I wanted to know the moment he had a publisher for it so we could feature it.
Eva Woods: Alexander Chee is also a man and good at the same time. There are some!
Mary-Kim Arnold: OMG a thousand hearts to Alexander Chee.
Marisa: Yes, Chee is one of the best.
Eva Woods: The Queen of the Night might be my most recommended book. It’s just so damn PRETTY.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes! I really loved Edinburgh, too. I love first novels.
Eva Woods: Do you listen to music while you write? I, obviously, am obsessed with Frank Ocean, but I can’t listen to him when I write. Has to be something soothing that I can’t get upset about. Dvorak mostly.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I can’t! I want to be able to, but I really can’t! Not even classical, which I know sometimes people can write to, even if they can’t write to other kinds. I get too easily distracted. I like almost complete silence, which is hard to come by! But I tend to write really early in the morning, so at least it’s minimal noise.
Eva Woods: I have a friend who listens to really hard techno when he writes! I think he’s psychotic.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Haha! I could definitely not do that!
Eva Woods: I always love to read about author’s writing accoutrements, like the cup of tea or certain place, things like that. Do you have writing *things*?
Mary-Kim Arnold: some of my friends can write in cafes. I can’t do that either. I have a desk in my house, a nice little office space, and I like, mostly, to work there. I have various notebooks and “lucky” pens
Eva Woods: Wait, you write longhand? On paper?!
Marisa: Do you always write by hand at first?
Mary-Kim Arnold: No, I go back and forth—I have switched over to cheapo notebooks (think spiral-bound) because it feels less precious than the Moleskines—and I take a lot of just thinking notes there.
Mary-Kim Arnold: What about you?
Marisa: I haven’t had a consistent writing practice in years, so I don’t feel qualified to answer. Ask me in a year, when I hope that will have changed.
Eva Woods: Lol this is so goofy but I start anything that’s emotional (poems or tricky essays) on my phone in my notes app so I don’t have to take it too seriously. Then I move it over.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Oh! I like that approach—the phone first! Plus, the added benefit of revising as you type.
Eva Woods: I can just pretend it’s a shopping list or something until I have enough of it down to go, Okay, let’s write this. By then it’s half done.
Mary-Kim Arnold: That’s so smart!
Marisa: Anything I wrote while kiddo was infant was done on the phone, while he slept on me or played on the floor, etc. And it definitely takes some of the pressure off. And less white space to content with.
Eva Woods: Also you can’t mess with margins and fonts for an hour.
Mary-Kim Arnold: I also keep a notebook in the car!
Eva Woods: Oh smart!
Marisa: So we’ve reached the end of the hour, which went by so quickly!
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes! Omg you guys are the BEST! Thank you so much for spending time with me!
Eva Woods: I guess we are out of time, huh? Mary-Kim, THANK YOU.
Mary-Kim Arnold: THANK YOU! xoxoxo
Eva Woods: For your book and this chat. Do you tweet? I’m gonna follow you if you do.
Mary-Kim Arnold: Yes! I’ll follow you, too!
Eva Woods: Okay, cool. See you on the Internet!
Mary-Kim Arnold: Awesome! Have a good night!
Marisa: Mary-Kim, thank you so much for joining us and for talking about Litany for the Long Moment, and for writing this gorgeous book. And, of course, for being a part of The Rumpus and all the good work you do for the literary community. So much love to you. I hope these next few weeks are a whirlwind of celebration!
Mary-Kim Arnold: Thank you!