Desire for Depth and Closeness: Talking with Laurel Nakanishi
In 2013, I met a young writer named Laurel Nakanishi at a conference in Miami, sponsored by the creative writing program where I teach. She told me she was interested in pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at Florida International University, and we spoke a bit about her writing life and writing dreams.
In many ways, Laurel and I have never finished that conversation. It is surrounded by perpetual, joyful ellipses. I remain in South Florida, and Laurel, having completed her MFA at FIU in 2017, has returned to her first home in Honolulu, Hawai’i. For The Rumpus, we resumed our conversation with special attention to literary process, cross-genre work, and Laurel’s debut poetry collection, Ashore (Tupelo Press, March 2021).
The Rumpus: You belong to a unique cohort of students who have completed two Master of Fine Arts degrees—first, an MFA in poetry at the University of Montana, followed by an MFA in creative nonfiction (specifically, lyric essay) at Florida International University, where we met.
So, let’s begin there. What led you to pursue your first MFA, and how did that experience meet and/or exceed and/or defy your expectations? By extension, what led you to pursue a second MFA, and how did that experience complement and/or contrast with the first?
In light of your courses and thesis defenses in two different genres in two distinctive programs, you surely gained expertise not only in literary craft but also into the nature of “graduate studenting” itself. What insights about the MFA experience, including advice for future applicants, would you care to offer?
Laurel Nakanishi: It is true; I’ve spent a lot of time in graduate MFA programs! Yet, while I love learning, collaborating, and working with mentors, I initially resisted the idea of an MFA. I have some deep reservations about institutions and felt hesitant to reenter the university system after graduating from college. I told myself that I needed more life experience to become a good writer. I told myself that it would be self-indulgent to pursue an MFA while so many students were receiving substandard public education. At the time, I was working with educational nonprofits and found a lot of meaning and purpose in that work. Yet, these jobs left little time for writing, and I missed that space for reflection. A dear mentor from undergrad, Mary Szybist, suggested an MFA. She described it as both a valuable period of study and a way to gain new perspective on the societal problems that felt so insurmountable to me. So, after some thought and travels, I began my MFA in poetry at the University of Montana.
In those early days of my MFA, I remember a sense of exhilaration to be surrounded by peers who were just as excited about poetry as I was. Our classes were challenging and enriching, and our post-class discussions were equally engaging and deep. For the two years of the program, I experimented with different poetic styles, forms, and genres with a variety of visiting writers and UM faculty. I also connected with the Missoula Writing Collaborative, a nonprofit that teaches poetry in public schools. This elation of being a student again was balanced with a certain loneliness. Missoula is a very white town, and I missed the cultural and racial diversity of Hawai’i. Nonetheless, I emerged from this MFA program with a wide-ranging idea of what poetry could be and a commitment to make my way in the world as a writer.
I really had no intention of doing a second MFA, but after a year of study with the Fulbright program in Nicaragua, I moved to Miami, Florida. It was there where I met Campbell McGrath and you, Julie. In our conversations, I saw that, by pursuing an MFA at FIU, I could work with wonderful mentors, have more time to write, and connect with the Miami community in meaningful ways. I entered into this MFA experience with clear goals in mind. I wanted to finish my book of poetry, write a collection of lyric essays, and begin a writers-in-schools program in Miami. I found that FIU offered a lot of support in pursuing these goals, and I was delighted that I could make the MFA experience what I wanted.
That said, I want to emphasize that you do not need to do an MFA program to become a writer. There are so many avenues into writing, including working with mentors in your community or reading mentor texts. What the MFA afforded me was the time and support to write and a community that helped me reflect on my work and grow. I also found that there can be flexibility in institutions, and that, with some creativity, you can transform your experience of a program so that it works for you.
Rumpus: As I recall, Ashore began (perhaps under a different title?) as your MFA poetry thesis. Could you share a bit about your initial vision for the book and how that vision grew and changed over time? What new experiences, as a writer and a person, have informed your revising/reimagining/reinvestigating—or whatever word you would use—of the collection toward this published version? And (how) has genre cross-training, in the lyric essay and other forms of writing, influenced the book Ashore became?
Nakanishi: Although I began actively working on the poems of Ashore as a part of my MFA poetry thesis, I feel like these poems have been at work in me for far longer than that. Many of the poems touch back to my early experiences of Hawai’i and the ways that these islands have held me as I’ve grown. I believe that it takes lifetimes and generations to get to know a place deeply, and I acknowledge that I am at the very beginning of my journey of deepening my knowledge of and connection to Hawai’i. The book began, I think, from this desire for depth and closeness. Initially, I set out to write a book that reflected Hawai’i in its myriad forms. Somewhat ironically, it took living in Missoula, Montana, to have enough distance and space to begin to write about the islands.
Yet, as I shuffled through various starts and drafts, I found the scope of the project widening. The landscapes of Montana began to seep into my poetry along with the stories of my mother’s family who lived there. The project widened further when I moved to Nicaragua with the support of a Fulbright fellowship. Over the course of a year, I immersed myself in Spanish and the small town life of El Castillo, a village on the banks of the San Juan River. During this time, I was doing what I can only describe as “survival writing”—writing as a form of grappling with a new place, culture, language, and socioeconomic reality. A few of these musings were later worked and re-worked into poems that appear in Ashore, many were shelved, and others form the body of my second manuscript specifically focused on Nicaragua.
When I returned to the US, I began to shape Ashore into the form it has taken today. My study of lyric essay was very helpful in this regard—specifically learning how to choose what fits within a project. I also added a notes section, which is really a series of lyric essays in disguise. These essays came quite late in my process—after the book was accepted for the Berkshire Prize—in response to my attendance of AWP in Portland in 2019. During this conference, I realized that continental readers might appreciate more cultural background on some of the references in the poems. And I was eager to introduce new readers to the wealth of texts and teachings available on Hawai’i, especially the work of Mary Kawena Pukui, Mahealani Perez Wendt, and Nana Veary.
Rumpus: I wonder if you could share a bit about your life philosophy—is “spirituality” a fitting word?—and how it informs your approach to art-making and to pedagogy? Perhaps a related question is what kind of writer and teacher do you consider yourself to be and do you aspire to be?
Nakanishi: Thank you, Julie, for thinking in and asking these big questions! As a child, I grew up with both Christian and Buddhist traditions (the influences of my Episcopalian mother and Japanese Buddhist grandmother). And although I don’t feel particularly attached to institutions of religion now, I do practice mindfulness meditation with a beloved sangha—the Honolulu Mindfulness Community. This practice of stopping, breathing, and looking deeply—what you so aptly call “purposeful attention”—is something I aspire to cultivate in my daily life, especially in my writing and teaching. A dear friend and poet, Janine Oshiro, and I have talked about this in terms of spiritual maturity. How in our society, wealth and its associated status are often valued over emotional and spiritual development—leaving us unable to cope with difficult situations in healthy ways.
My practice of mindfulness and study of Buddhism are certainly imperfect and ongoing, but I believe that it helps me encounter the vagaries and challenges of the world with a greater sense of calm. On my best days, this is the space I write and teach from—this calm that is spacious enough to allow for curiosity and awe. This is not to say that there is no place for anger or sadness in my poetry or teaching. I don’t want to be numb to the world’s suffering or paint over it with faux-Zen philosophizing; instead, I want to pay close attention. I want to have the space, away from reactivity, to look deeper and try to understand it. In the classroom, this practice may take on the form of trying to really listen to and understand my students. As a writer, this may look like research or revision that honestly attempts to see the direction of a piece of writing. I feel like this practice informs the kind of writer I aspire to be… but this self is still very much unfolding.
Rumpus: I know you as someone who practices humility as part of your larger commitment to mindfulness, so please trust that I don’t ask this question to make you feel bashful or as if to solicit a brag. Last week in Graduate Memoir Seminar, I asked all of us, my students and I, to write in response to an invitation I found near the end of Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. Toi, too, is a person and writer committed to humility, and on page 184 of her memoir, she writes “one of my biggest strengths as a writer is…”
I thought how seldom we name our strengths as writers and how seldom we are encouraged to. We focus a lot on our weaknesses, the aspects of our work (and ourselves) that we’re trying to improve. But I found it empowering and inspiring to hear students share their responses, to give them permission to extend the launch line Toi had extended to them by writing “one of my biggest strengths as a writer is…” and then completing that sentence.
What would you say is one of your biggest strengths as a writer, and where can we see that strength best epitomized in Ashore? Perhaps I’m also asking you for something else you’ll recall from my classes—naming a “heart poem” from a collection we have read together. In this case, I’m asking you to name a “heart poem” from your own work, which may feel harder. How does this poem embody the poet you are at present—or even foreshadow the poet you are becoming/seek to become?
Nakanishi: Recently, I was in a workshop with the amazing poet, educator, and peace-worker, Puanani Burgess. She introduced a similar idea—asking us to share the story of our gifts. She encouraged us to think about our gifts not in terms of what we are praised for but what we find within ourselves. After we shared, she asked us to think about what would happen if we taught to the gifts of our children and our teachers.
I think one of my gifts as a writer is my ability to work with imagery. I often enter into a poem through the door of an image, and I try to craft descriptions that are both precise and surprising. This grounding in the physicality of the world is a steady note throughout Ashore, and is especially present in the series of poems called “Mānoa” (scattered throughout the book).
For me, right now, my “heart poem” is the last of the book, the final “Mānoa.” Along with imagery and lyric musicality, it folds in narrative, research, and mythology. The spaciousness of its length reminds me of the lyric essay form and perhaps foreshadows my work in that genre. For the past year, I have been working intensively in prose (on a lyric memoir centered around a Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan), so it has been interesting to return to the poems of Ashore and to see how this earlier work held the seeds of my current projects. I anticipate that I will continue to move in this direction—blending genres while finding grounding in imagery.
Rumpus: I love the concept of sharing “the story of our gifts.” I also love the way the word “gift” slyly resists the binary between “strengths” and “weaknesses.” A gift might be both, and a gift might be neither. Most gifts strike me as hybrid forms, which of course is what you’re talking about here with blending genres and drawing poetry and prose out of their binaries and into a different kind of relationship, e.g. the lyric essay.
When I was a sophomore in college, David Seal, a professor who had a profound influence on my life, assigned us to read James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Hillman was a Jungian psychologist who retold Plato’s Myth of Er this way: “we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belong to its necessity. This suggests that these circumstances, including my body and my parents[…], are my soul’s own choice—and I do not understand this because I have forgotten.”
As was no doubt Dr. Seal’s intention, I still mull on this myth of origin often. I suspend disbelief and consider why I might have “elected” my particular body, parents, place, and circumstances in the world and try to connect the idea of “my soul’s own choice” to a larger practice of gratitude. Let me extend that question to you: why did you choose your body, parents, place, and circumstances in order to become the person and writer you are? How do these “givens” of your life serve as gifts?
Nakanishi: How interesting to hear a source text for an idea that I have heard paraphrased in various forms. I have been thinking about incarnation quite a bit lately—incarnation in the sense of the Latin “incarnatus” or “made flesh.” I’m currently pregnant and expecting my baby in a couple of weeks. Over the past nine months, I have been thinking about the process of incarnation—this slow amassing of a small body within mine, the mystery of it, the wonder. I’ve been asking myself, “Just when does a being become sentient? Does this being have a soul? How are they separate from me and not?” And while I have some hesitations about the concept of a soul and its agency in the world, I do admit it is comforting to believe that this new being somehow “elected” me and my family as belonging “to its necessity.”
And so I will join you in suspending my disbelief to consider “my soul’s own choice” of this life in a female body, with my beloved family, in Honolulu, and the various circumstances that have shaped me into the person I am. So many of these givens in my life are, indeed, gifts—the stability of my home life, my mixed racial and ethnic heritage, and the geographic and cultural beauty of Hawai’i, just to name a few. When I reflect on my life in this way, I recognize so many privileges—in health and economic class, in race and nationality. I do not believe that one must have privileges like these to become a writer. And indeed, better writing may arise from places of adversity.
My issue with Plato’s Myth of Er is that it seems to justify privilege and systems of inequality with the explanation that people born into harmful or unjust situations somehow chose that life for themselves. I know, of course, that you are not suggesting this line of thinking, but it is pervasive in our society. That said, thank you for this question. It has been illuminating to catalogue some of my privileges and think about the causes and conditions that may inform who I am as a person and writer.
Rumpus: Laurel, you’ve helped me clarify why, even as I think about “my soul’s own choice” in relation to personal empowerment, I’ve always been reluctant to use the prompt in class for fear of justifying privilege and endorsing inequalities that you describe above. And like you, I am also still ruminating on what I mean when I say “soul” and what word or words I could use as an alternative to “soul.”
This year is a creative commencement for you, both in the completion sense and the fresh beginning sense. A new book and a new baby. Let’s close our interview with a chance for you to share what you’d like your child to know about where they come from, who they come from, and what you value most, in life and in art—what gifts you look forward to sharing.
Nakanishi: I’ve been lucky to have a lot of children in my life over the years. I teach creative writing in public elementary schools across the state of Hawai’i (and formerly in Nicaragua and Miami). So, when I think about my wishes and hopes for my own child, I can’t help but think about these other children, as well. I would like for our children to feel in touch with the interwoven cycles and systems that support life on Earth, especially our island ecosystems. I would like for them to know the stories of their parents, grandparents, and the elders (especially Kanaka Maoli–Native Hawaiian elders) who can teach us how to live peacefully and responsibly in our world. I would like for them to value compassion, community, and critical thinking. And, of course, I want them to be embraced, protected, and nurtured by a community that keeps them safe, yet challenges them to develop their gifts. I don’t think I answered your question, but this list of wishes does probably reflect what I value most in life and art.
Photograph of Laurel Nakanishi by Gen Fujitan.