On Relic and Recovery: A Conversation with Kimiko Hahn
Kimiko Hahn’s tenth book of poems, Foreign Bodies, is inspired by the Chevalier Jackson Collection at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, an assemblage of inhaled and swallowed objects Dr. Jackson extracted from patients during his career as a laryngologist.
Much like the small drawers of curious knick knacks, Hahn’s collection is itself a place of playfully ambiguous portals which create a generous amount of space for something like self-recognition. The writing is seductive this way, and as Hahn investigates Dr. Jackson’s collection alongside her father’s hoarding, readers are implored to think about the psychological elements behind the impulse to collect, its vertiginous effect, as well Hahn’s own process of recovery. What after all, does it mean to possess after something assumes residence in the body, whether a safety pin, grief, or, as with the physical experience of art, the curl of a drawn-out vowel in the mouth.
In true Hahn fashion, the imagery, narrative, and mysteries of nature tie deftly into the way she examines her own stake in the work. Behind the curtain of words, she is quietly and diligently asking herself “what does this mean to me” in a way that renders Foreign Bodies ephemeral, solemn, and at times, humorous.
Over FaceTime, Kimiko talked with me about her interest in science, Japanese poetics, and breaking open drafts to unleash electricity.
The Rumpus: Let’s start at the beginning. Your encounter with the Chevalier Jackson Collection which includes 2,374 inhaled or swallowed objects that Dr. Jackson, a pioneer of endoscopy, removed during his career. How did this exhibit inspire you to write your tenth book of poems, Foreign Bodies?
Kimiko Hahn: Often, I am first attracted to a particular subject because of the language, the imagery, or, if there is some hint of a narrative, as in the case with insect lives (think myth or fairy tale). With Dr. Jackson, it was a combination. I became aware of his collection at the Mütter Museum and I was immediately struck by the drawers of ingested things. People’s collections in general are intriguing and can create a kind of portrait. Why do people collect a particular thing? Of course, his are in part for professional reasons but I sensed there was a compulsion driving him.
I was also drawn to his story because, around the same time, my father’s health was in decline and my sister and I started to really worry about his hoarding. So the theme of hoarding was coming up in different areas of my life. Eventually, I viewed Dr. Jackson’s collection in this light. I mean, there’s a thin line between collecting and hoarding.
As I was thinking about how to write about him, I was reading Mary Cappello’s biography Swallow, and I could see Jackson had a need to collect. That psychological dimension pulled me in and I became increasingly curious about what compelled him. When I started to ask those questions and started writing, I turned that question around and asked myself, why does it matter to me?
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about your interest in science, your research of scientific articles. What is the point where your exploration meets an emotional connection? And then, how do you manifest that emotionality on the page?
Hahn: I’m attracted to articles in the science section of the New York Times because of the language or because of some little hook. I’ll start with those words or a kind of talking back: “Why isn’t Pluto a planet anymore? Why can’t we just keep it a planet?” I’ll start mucking around in thoughts or playing with words. I play with drafts. This is the fun part, the discovery part, when you’re not in control of the material. Then, at some point as I’m looking with more of an editorial eye, I have to ask myself, what is at stake for me?
I then decide on a thematic direction, that is, how I want to deepen or heighten those themes, where in the poem I can break something open with one word. I’m very proud of the poem “The Ashes” in Foreign Bodies. I think I’ve been wanting to write that poem for a long time. It began as a kind of exercise and in early drafts it wasn’t working. It was dull. Around the same time, I was reading Emily Dickinson and I thought, I’m going to try one of her tricks, to personify these objects. So I came up with images like “circumspect mothballs.” All of a sudden, the poem started to pop with more electricity.
Rumpus: Your word associations and references introduce opportunities for the reader to enter different spaces within the poems. Can you speak a little bit about this? The portals, the pivot words, double meanings, and, to use your phrase from “Nitro,” “productive ambiguity”?
Hahn: When I teach I also use the word “opportunity.” To look for an opportunity to break the poem open, to create a kind of portal where the poem goes from being more or less linear, to something that is alive and moving around. In an earlier poem about a dragonfly, I used the description “transparent wings.” Then I thought, what other word can I use besides “transparent”? I opened a thesaurus and “lucent” struck me as a synonym for transparent but also suggested “lucid,” expressed clearly. All of a sudden, that pop is there and it gives me an opportunity to move around in the draft. It’s all about language and where you can pressure a word towards a portal.
Rumpus: When I asked that question I had in mind nature and how, like in poetry, there is a kind of whimsy that occurs in the process of becoming. In your poem “Hatchlings” you write: “How to research what transpires / In the head of a hatchling / before it’s hatched / and why we need to know – / might well be an intimacy / not meant to be trespassed.” I’ve read that you love the language of science because it’s exotic to you. When it comes to science in your poems would you say you’re interested in preservation—not just in the literal sense—but of a kind of exoticism?
Hahn: That’s interesting. I think things are exotic because they are the Other. Japanese things are not exotic to me but there are other things that are exotic. The insect world, for example. I don’t know anything about it, I’m not an entomologist so the language is exotic, and the information has an otherworldly feel. I think there will always be the Other. It’s not always positive but it can be. In early childhood development, the mother is the other to the infant, the love object. There will always be the other and I think that’s where the exotic resides. Regarding preservation, I’m very interested in it socially. In order to preserve some things we need to move backwards and clean things up. I am literally interested in preservation.
At one point, when collaborating with photographer Lauren Henken, she and I were talking about the themes of preservation and extinction because, of course, we don’t want things in general, flora and fauna, to become extinct. We want to preserve them. But extinction is also part of the natural world, not necessarily good or bad. We need to accept that, but who decides? How is it determined and are we committing atrocities to the planet? That’s the larger question. The themes of preservation and extinction are very dear to me. This is a roundabout way of tying the two words in your question together: the mysteries of the natural world and issues of preserving mystery.
Rumpus: Following the theme of preservation, “Hatchlings” was originally meant to be in Toxic Flora. How do you know when something should be put away and revived later?
Hahn: There was just no real electricity in that poem. I don’t remember what it looked like, but I do remember that it was flat. The subject matter was interesting enough, maybe witty, but there was no pop. At some point in pulling together Foreign Bodies, I realized I wanted something humorous because most of the work is pretty dire, pretty solemn. So I thought to look at drafts that I could revise. I found “Hatchlings” and a couple of other poems. I thought let me see if I can revise them to get some spark.
Rumpus: Moving on to “The Cryptic Chamber,” you utilize white space. It’s an emotional landscape, but also, a confrontation of how we see ourselves positioned in it, how we choose to negotiate ourselves around the words. You’ve said before that you have a relationship with the line as a poet. I know you’ve mentioned words have a texture for you. You can feel them in your mouth.
Hahn: Yes, there’s a wonderful book called The Portable Poetry Workshop by Jack Myers that has a remarkable scale of textures. His categories are almost scientific: transparent, light, medium, heavy, dense, abstract. He uses an early poem of mine for medium texture. I think of each one possessing a little bit more grit. A very dense texture would be Gerard Manley Hopkins, no surprise. You can actually feel those words, those consonants and vowels, all those sounds, you can feel them in your mouth as you say them. This sensation, for me, goes back to art as an experience. I can experience those words differently when I’m saying them and hearing them. My mouth is moving. If I’m uttering a line of poetry, it’s not just something I’m seeing and hearing, my mouth is moving, it’s a physical experience.
Rumpus: In “Object Lessons,” you reference Freud’s primal scene—the idea that something witnessed as a child takes up residence in the body and makes itself known later in life. Further along in the poem, you reference newly coined terms. Amylophagia, for example, the ingestion of laundry starch, and Cautopyreiophagia, the ingestion of burnt matches. Do you think the act of naming can become a defense? A layer of reference between the self and what might actually be inexplicable?
Hahn: Well, that’s kind of our task. I guess that’s what sets us apart from animals for better or for worse. Naming things. Going back to our earliest myths of Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel. One of the parent’s first jobs is to name things and teach a child words for things. I think that just lasts our whole life. Now, how to name something that is abstract, whether it’s homesickness, or one of these psychological issues. It’s something we do. There will always be something that we can’t explain. I think it’s both potential defense but also access. And an ongoing human endeavor I suppose.
Rumpus: Like Dr. Jackson, it seems your writing in this collection was often an act of recovery. How did the objects, events, and memories of your own life metamorphose as you examined the distance between their origin and present day?
Hahn: The word “recovery” is interesting because I think of the word cover. That something is covered. When I think of going into my father’s home, you couldn’t even see the floor. There were drifts, like snow drifts, of stuff and some of it was valuable, so we couldn’t just throw everything out. It was a kind of recovery, it was an excavation of things from our childhood. My sister and I recovered those things. The process of literally going into my father’s home and recovering some of those things or seeing what we could find was a process of recovery. Then the question arises: will I be able to recover from that experience?
I think that writing some of the poems in Foreign Bodies was analogous to the process of going inside, going through this junk, finding something and, oh! A pencil. This is what I needed to write about. I’m going to write about this mechanical pencil. Because it has lead and that’s spelled l-e-a-d and now it’s going to lead me somewhere. So, I think the writing itself can be, not always, but can be a process of recovery. Finding again and also returning to a stronger state of mind.
Rumpus: Where would you draw the line between recovery and excavation?
Hahn: I have a very long poem “Exhume” (in The Artist’s Daughter) and it’s based on actual case studies on a necrophile, “Lt. B.” I was curious about this extreme behavior. How do you even discover that you’re attracted to corpses? And then I had to ask myself, well, aside from being curious about extreme behavior, why am I interested in reading about this man? I mean they are horrific stories and honestly I don’t want to have anything to do with dead bodies. Just want to add that disclaimer. But the theme is fascinating to me: exhuming, excavating.
Excavating is digging a hole or digging out material from the ground. To exhume is to dig out something (especially a corpse) from the ground. And, recovery is more of a process connected to regaining possession, to preserving. Or, deciding not to hold on. Perhaps Dr. Jackson was recovering things from those children but also for himself. He was enacting something deeply psychological for himself, and that’s what we do in writing. You have to get all that stuff out of the ground, or your father’s living room, or bedroom, or kitchen, or basement.
Rumpus: I wanted to share that while reading through your poems, I found I began to question my definition of intimacy, which was always very singular—an implication of amity or love. But there are moments in these poems, the reference to Saturn eating his children, the reference to the queen’s attempted cannibalism in Snow White, that portray an intimacy that is perverse and violent. Further along in the collection, I began to think of grief as another kind of intimacy. Experiencing someone’s death is a bit like a bizarre ingestion. Where do the dead go if not somewhere inside of us? There is a poem at the beginning of the collection where your daughter assumed her grandma, after she passed away, lived in her stomach, which seems perfectly logical to me.
Hahn: Absolutely; don’t these things go on living inside us? It’s very primitive. My first reaction to your comment is delight and appreciation that you as a reader could go off and have experiences and thoughts, and even mulled over a word like “intimacy.” You know, one reason I’m interested in insects, going back to before we started the interview, is that at some point I realized that insects have lives that are very much like Grimm’s fairy tales. They cannibalize each other, they are incestuous, they inject their eggs in a host, they just do all these horrific things. Things that are kind of weird and very accessible in fairy tales. So, that was actually one way I connected to the subject and became more intimate, with, say death. And, of course, death is plentiful in the insect world. All kinds of strange deaths.
Rumpus: In your poem “Alloy” about Isamu Noguchi’s work, you include a statement of his that, “To be hybrid anticipates the future.” Earlier in that poem you say that you’ve never killed a centipede by cutting it in half but, “The split selves not seeing eye-to-eye, I know only too well.” Can you tell me a little bit about this?
Hahn: Well, I am what people used to call “a product of a mixed marriage.” I was born in 1955 and Eurasian children were unusual. The few other kids I knew, and certainly not in the suburban town I grew up in, had mothers who were, what was called at the time, “war brides” from Japan. My parents are both American and they met in Chicago but a mixed marriage was still unusual. In fact, there were still anti-miscegenation laws in a number of states. Growing up, I was constantly reminded that I was neither one thing nor the other, especially growing up in a very homogeneous suburban town. That was a little tough. It was also a point of pride. Especially in the 1960s when Eurasian was considered by some as cool. Then again, there was also the civil rights movement, but even in that context, I was part white which was part negative and then for Japanese from Japan, I wasn’t “pure.” At different times in my life, I have felt that there was something negative in being a hybrid person. So I was very interested in Isamu Noguchi, who was born decades earlier (1904) and had a very difficult upbringing. His parents, bohemians that they were, never married. In fact, his father wasn’t around. I was very interested in how he negotiated his own background, and also the politics of it.
Rumpus: As we talked about, you’re influenced by Japanese poetics. You describe something that is economical as being more intense. When I experience this intensity, it feels like moments of self-recognition for the writer and the reader suddenly align. How do you arrive at this place in a poem?
Hahn: I will literally make a list of what I have at stake in the material and then, with that list, I am somewhat guided to deepen and break open the draft. And I try and do so with language rather than explication, which is a danger in writing. Trying for what you’ve called “recognition” is a physical experience and if it’s physical for me, I hope it’s physical for you. I trust the revision process. Re/vision. Hopefully you are aligning with that recognition.
Photograph of Kimiko Hahn by Beowulf Sheehan.