I met Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello when she was a graduate student in the MFA program at Florida International University. Months after graduating, a version of her thesis collection, Hour of the Ox, won the prestigious Donald Hall Prize for Poetry selected by Crystal Ann Williams and was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 2015.
Five years later, and after many months sheltering in place, I reached out to Marci. We spoke about her writing life during and after graduate school, art and identity, elegies and anti-elegies, genre and translation, and more.
The Rumpus: I just finished teaching a summer poetry class, and something my students unanimously confirmed was that they have never thought of poetry as an occupation, something they could do as their job or even as part of their job. I said something like “Well, maybe poetry isn’t an occupation exactly. Maybe it’s more of a vocation, something not necessarily tied to a position or a paycheck.” But I’m only one person, one poet, so I’d like to ask you, Marci: As someone who writes, publishes, and reads her poems for audiences, where does “poet” fit into your sense of self? What does identifying as a poet mean to you?
Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: We are obsessed with knowing what percentage of anything we are. Identity isn’t as easily broken down as a DNA test where you might get twenty-three percent this and fifty-seven percent that or twenty percent something else until you somehow add up to one hundred percent. It sounds ridiculous to say “poet” is thirty-one percent of my sense of self, but too often that’s how we try to fit it into our lives. My dear friend E. J. Koh once wrote me a letter in response to anxieties I had about whether I was “Asian enough” to be writing my poems. She said, “You are one hundred percent Korean and one hundred percent American.” Which is to say, all the multitudes you contain can add up to much more than a clean one hundred percent because you’re all of it at once.
To press your students’ responses, I think their perspective begs larger questions of how much or little we as a society value poetry in relation to practicalities such as monetary compensation versus exposure, how we measure success by the amount and type of suffering a poet endures, how many followers their social media feeds have, how we all hope to “make it” but shun the poet who has “sold out to mainstream” to perpetuate stereotypes of the “starving artist” or “beat poet” lifestyle. Some days I think we either revere or underestimate poetry too much; some days we do both simultaneously.
Even though most of us somehow turn poetry into other jobs such as teaching or balance an entirely unrelated career in order to pay our bills, American poets are fortunate right now to live in a country where we are not imprisoned or deported for our poems. When people began protesting after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor and so many others, we turned to literature. When all the antiracist reading lists began circulating, did it matter how many people knew what these famous authors’ jobs were besides writing? As we turn to these writers, who remembers that Audre Lorde was a librarian, or that Lucille Clifton was a claims clerk? Maybe we should, but we don’t.
Rumpus: I love E. J. Koh’s assessment that you are 100% Korean and 100% American at the same time. Instead of a pie chart with many differently sized slices, what I’m picturing is all our different identity pies spread out across the table—the self as a whole bakery instead of a single dessert sliced into pieces!
Your MFA thesis at Florida International University became your first published collection of poems, Hour of the Ox. This book won the prestigious AWP Donald Hall Prize in Poetry in 2015 not long after you graduated with your degree. What did winning that prize mean to you, and how did it—if it did—complicate your thinking about poetry as art versus poetry as commerce?
Calabretta Cancio-Bello: Ah, competition. I’m grateful for the spirit of poetic camaraderie you wove into your workshop spaces. The actual act of writing is so solitary that we forget the collaboration required to have something to write about. All the years we live, the joys and sorrows we experience, the artistic ancestors whose books and music and TV we filter through our brains into inspirations for poems; all the professors and colleagues whose suggestions and lessons we accept or reject; all the screeners and editors and reviewers and teachers and readers who pass our work to the next set of eyes—all of them are necessary to the art-making process whether we realize it or not.
When working with someone who wants to publish a book, I always ask them why. It is difficult to be honest with ourselves about our desires. Competitions are tricky, and reinforce the falseness of scarcity. I recognize how lucky I was to win such an honor so soon after graduating. The book contest provides poets with a cash advance and publicity we wouldn’t otherwise get. But the odds are astronomical and subjective, and a side effect is people being pitted against each other. We pour our hearts into writing, seek validation, spend money on submission fees, get wrecked by rejection, compare ourselves to the winners, then do it all over again. But there are many different ways to publish a book. Every year, Poets House showcases approximately three thousand poetry publications published in the last eighteen months, and yet we only spotlight a handful of prize winners. Why is that?
The poems in Hour of the Ox wouldn’t have been possible without many people. Winning the AWP Donald Hall Prize was a dream come true, and the University of Pittsburgh Press is still my dream press. But we focus so much on winning that we don’t prepare ourselves for how bittersweet it can be to actually get what we want. I received forty-five rejections in a year and a half for Hour of the Ox, but as soon as I won, colleagues suddenly told me, “You don’t know what it’s like anymore.” Now that they have books of their own, they’ve forgotten they said this.
Denise Duhamel once told me, “Remember that publishing a book probably won’t change your life the way you think it will.” Her words have anchored me over the years. I’ve learned who my real community is, how to navigate rejections and jealousies, and how to recognize the flaws and opportunities in the publishing world. I want always to be generous in paying forward the kindness and wisdom of my many teachers, but I have also learned to see people’s ambitions more clearly.
Rumpus: I agree with Denise, as I so often do, about publishing a book. On the one hand, a certain eligibility (to apply for most tenure-track academic jobs, say, or to be considered for certain prizes or read in certain venues) accompanies publishing a book that is often not extended to writers who haven’t published a book yet—even writers of tremendous promise. On the other hand, having an ISBN attached to your name likely won’t change anything about day-to-day living. There are still bills to pay and dishes to wash—and most of the time, no paparazzi chasing down poets (much to my relief, I must say, but also perhaps to some poets’ chagrin).
One question my undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing MFAs often ask concerns the process of putting together a book. They know the MFA thesis is a book, and one student put it this way: “Do poets start with an overarching vision for their book and then write the poems they think will support that vision? Or do they just write the poems they feel called to write and eventually decide which ones go together in a book?” My response was that the questions is a good one, but the answer depends on the particular poet.
For you, I’m wondering how Hour of the Ox came into focus for you and what the composition process was like? I recall that the manuscript didn’t always have that title, and I know you relentlessly drafted and revised and reordered your manuscript during the time you were preparing your thesis for defense. Was this the book, or a version of the book, that you came to FIU to write? Or was it a book you never imagined writing until you were actually writing it? Or something else all together? Really, I just want to know whatever you’d care to share about the writing and assemblage of your beautiful manuscript.
Calabretta Cancio-Bello: I agree with you that this process changes from poet to poet, and even from book to book. I firmly believe that if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader. If I set out to write a specific book, it is already weakened by my own ego’s intentions. If I first write the poems that I am compelled to write, and then let the poems begin to form their own threads and conversations with each other, if I pay close enough attention to the shape they begin to take, then I can see the bones of the book.
Hour of the Ox was a book I never imagined I would write. I had grown up seeing very few Asian American poets publish, and even fewer adoptee poets. I’ve been told all my life that, like being a woman and an adoptee, the Asian Americanness in me was not important, not wanted, not [insert anything] enough. So, I fought against writing anything that could be remotely labeled as “Asian American.” During my thesis year, I had trouble writing poems that felt cohesive until I asked myself what I loved about reading poetry books in the first place. A narrative arc of any kind, and real emotional truths felt deep in the gut and the spine and the back teeth. The poems began asking the question, “When a necessary part of the family suddenly disappears, how do people handle their grief differently?” It turns out that all my poems are about missing persons.
On a practical note, I am a ruthless revisionist. My thesis was about ninety-five percent the same as the finished Hour of the Ox, but the order of the book also matters. After the first round of rejections, I took out three poems, added a new one, and reordered the manuscript completely. Of course, a contest is always the luck of the draw, but I do think that the ordering of a manuscript can make or break the book.
Rumpus: Just now after reading your response, I searched for “Marci’s thesis” on my desktop and brought up the final formatted version from 2014, which was then titled In Favor of Storms and arranged into three parts. In this version of the book, the final poem of the third section is “Anti-Elegy.” Beside me on my desk I have the published version of the book, copyrighted in 2016 under the title Hour of the Ox. And as I consider this table of contents, I notice the published version is arranged into two sections, with the poem “Anti-Elegy” now serving as a standalone prologue—the first poem before the first part of the book even begins.
Both versions of this book felt complete and satisfying to me as I read them, but I’m particularly struck today by the different feelings evoked by the two titles. I don’t prefer one to the other, but I’d like to ask how Hour of the Ox emerged for you as a new title for your manuscript and how it reflects your vision for this project differently—more completely?—than In Favor of Storms.
I’d also like to ask about “Anti-Elegy” and your decision to move this startling and beautiful poem from culmination to invocation in the collection. The poem’s final line, preceded by that thrilling em dash, “—For we are not our own,” reads to me in Hour of the Ox as a poetic thesis for the collection, something for readers to hold in their minds as they read, to test against the contents of the poems, rather than the speaker’s final earned epiphany at the end of In Favor of Storms. But that’s just me, one reader. How did your experience of your own project change when your last poem became your first?
And while we’re on the subject of elegies and their alter-egos, let me ask: What does the elegy mean to you as a poet who reckons with missing persons in your work?
Calabretta Cancio-Bello: While I have no opinion of others using title poems, I’m not a fan of it for my own books; too much pressure is placed on that one poem to represent the entire collection, often inaccurately. One of the many early titles was Dictionary of Storms, which included other poems like “From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” In Favor of Storms is taken from the poem “Postmarked” about the currents of family relationships. It is difficult to sit in discomfort, to sometimes go through the fire rather than around it.
I’m fascinated by the ways we believe we can anticipate people’s personalities by quick analyses. In America, I am asked about my astrological signs; in Korea, it’s my blood type and birth year. In resisting a narrow, fragmented understanding of Asian mythologies and destabilizing the assumption that Western mythologies are the default here, I wanted to press the concept and origins of myth-making. Many people probably know the Chinese zodiac animal assigned to their birth year. One might tell time in even greater detail by assigning elements to the years or assigning zodiac animals to two-hour blocks in the twenty-four-hour day. The hour of the ox is 1 to 3 a.m. which is typically a frightening (or shady) time. The ox, being a work animal laboring in the fields all day, must be given a night shift. I am a night owl myself, and while I find great comfort in working alone late into the night, that is also when the demons come out, the terrors and anxieties alike. Drawn from “Restitution for the Grandson,” Hour of the Ox felt right for the book as simultaneously meditative and danger-fraught, perhaps the calm before, after, or in the eye of the storm.
The idea of elegies and anti-elegies ties back to “Restitution,” which is all about “if”—if only this person had or had not done or said, “if and if and yet—” This is a book about grief and not-grief, and I found energy to move forward with the published order when I started with “Anti-Elegy.” This serves as both a cast of characters (as in a play) and as a reminder that so many of our decisions are not our own, but are informed by others, however much we think they are just for us. A wedding is not for the couple but for the comfort and joy of the guests. A funeral is not for the dead but for the living. A book is not for the author but for the reader. We are marking the occasion so that we may move forward.
In Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, there is a character, Trance Gemini, who experiences multiple timelines and their endlessly branching possibilities, such that she’s not actually sure which future she’s living as “true” (and true for whom?). My brain works like that. What could I be if I had made a different decision, or if someone else made a different decision for me? I could spiral through what might have been, but it only makes me miserable. I could worry about the future, but it only makes me anxious. Still, there is something comfortable about being miserable, at least for a time. Only when our discomfort with the comfort of misery becomes more unbearable than the discomfort of the effort required to move forward do we actually begin to make decisions. I wanted readers to know from the start that this was not a book about grief, that grief was only the starting point, and this was about the nearly imperceptible mundane decisions people make that accumulate to irrevocably change them. Once “Anti-Elegy” became the intention set for the book, everything else fell into place.
Photograph of Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello by Margarita Corporan.