January 2011

Elizabeth Hildreth


An Interview with Kim Gek Lin Short

Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits was published by Tarpaulin Sky Press in May 2010. Her chapbook Run was selected for Rope-a-Dope’s 2010 Golden Gloves series. The full-length edition of Run, China Cowboy, is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press next year. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

In August 2010, she was interviewed over e-mail about by Elizabeth Hildreth. They discuss, among other things, the David Bowie Method, poems who wear cheap prose wigs, establishing a sort of cahoots with the villain, hallucinating Clint Eastwood (musical accompaniment and all), chafing against the words “strange” and “experimental,” and being considered the 2010 poetry It Girl.

Hi Kim! You’re famous. A book and a chapbook in... what? A couple of months? Run by Rope-A-Dope and The Bugging Watch and other Exhibits from Tarpaulin Sky. Congratulations, they’re both beautiful. And so different thematically. I thought maybe I would describe what both books are “about” but maybe I’ll just let you describe them and then I can respond?

Hey Elizabeth! Yes, Run and The Bugging Watch are pretty different. Although they’re both about the ways we escape (or don’t) and they both use prose poems to trigger stories, the stories they trigger are different. In Run, an adolescent wannabe cowgirl in Hong Kong called La La has a dysfunctional relationship with her kidnapper, an older American called Ren (pronounced “run” and Chinese for “person”). In The Bugging Watch, a Denver teenager called Harlan fantasizes about bugs and his girlfriend, a sort of white-trash angel called Toland (“to-land”). In retrospect, I refer to this reinvention as the David Bowie Method. But at the time I was writing these books -- and they do share a creative trajectory—their sources were indistinguishable to me. For instance, when I was 13 I decided I wanted to be Jim Morrison. I read No One Here Gets Out Alive at least ten times and I tried to make my hair wavy as a bird’s wing. I hoped that maybe I was a female Asian Jim Morrison reincarnation. I began to tell people I hoped this, and my teachers suggested I get into theater. What I mean is, the influence that my Jim Morrison period has on these very different books is, to me, obvious.

I thought you were going to say that your teachers recommend that you get into therapy. Did you? Theater, not therapy.

Eventually, yes, in high school. I had a few roles and some chorus bits in musicals, but was always primarily interested in the writing, and how the characters, particularly in drama, reveal themselves through contradictions. I love dialogue, and the vulnerability of “speaking,” but probably the best lesson I ever learned in a theater class came from a scene I did in The Miracle Worker that had no dialogue. I was a freshman in high school and it was my first theater class, and I was playing Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. It was a short scene in which the teacher tries to civilize the wild Helen Keller by making her use utensils to eat. Before we performed the scene for the other students, my theater teacher asked me what my character’s “objective” was, and I said something like, “To break Helen’s will by teaching her table manners and showing her who’s boss?” He said that was wrong, it had to be something else entirely, something not in the scene at all. At this point I had rehearsed this very physical struggle-scene a few times, and was hot and thirsty, so I said, “Well maybe Anne Sullivan just wants a glass of water.” And he said, “Yes! That’s it! Play it that way!” Well, basically, this was an epiphany for me: a character’s intentions are not (easily) defined, and sometimes they are not all that lofty. How human. We are all so complicated and outrageous, and it is so thrilling. A somewhat related term for what my teacher termed “objective” is “MacGuffin.” Have you seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps? This is where the term MacGuffin really takes off. It’s just delightfully inexplicable plot pushing, like a suitcase that the audience is dying to open.

I haven’t seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. I also haven’t seen that guy’s film where he digitally removed all the birds from Hitchcock’s The Birds and so the people are desperately screaming and running from nothing. It is on my list.

Rings truthfully doesn’t it, folks running and screaming from nothing? This reminds me of my memory of this scene at the end of the film Zentropa (or Europa). I saw the film when it came out, years and years ago, so who knows if I am remembering this correctly or making it up, but there is a scene towards the end of Zentropa that seems an apt juxtaposition to the Birds Minus Birds film. At the end of Zentropa, the protagonist, an American pacifist/train conductor, flails a gun around the cars screaming something like, I want the things that do not matter to not matter! If only. Yet this is the meaningful stuff that’s often most transformative -- the MacGuffins -- the unknowable stuff that relentlessly rides us.

Something really notable about your work is how, to me at least, it can be defined so neatly as “prose poetry.” I read so many prose poems and I’m struck thinking either a) this is a lyric poem with the line breaks removed, b) this is a one-paragraph short story, c) this is a one-paragraph essay. If someone asked me to define a prose poem, I’m not entirely sure what I’d say, but I would use one of yours as an example. Here’s what I’m talking about from Run, from the poem “Nebulizer”:

Please in my new life I will mend this rubber seal my soul, a swollen rubber place. In my new life I will -- he pulls the nebulizer off my face, a sunk space it stretches. It is so much like hell. I promise. In my new life.

Why does the form appeal to you and do you feel like these poems could have been written in any other form?

I find it impossible to assign any static definition to prose poetry, too. But, maybe like you, I know a prose poem when I see it. For me, it is not a call best made by weighing a work’s narrative versus lyric elements. And although prose poetry is often discussed in terms of its subversive origin, a primary point of this hybrid is its purposeful distinction from any origin. Sure, there are purists who regard the prose in prose poetry as pejorative, like a poem wearing a cheap prose wig and hollering, look at me! I am a poem without line breaks! I hate white space! But what it comes down to for me, most times, is very simply a feeling: an undeniable poetic underpinning in a work of prose. Like looking at a readymade and wondering, is it a toilet or is it art? I usually find answers to questions like these in my gut not my head.

And yes, absolutely the prose in Run or The Bugging Watch could have been written another way. Maybe someone else could give it a go? I do love a good remake.

I found Run deeply sad and disturbing. In fact I usually read everything I review out loud and at points I could not bring myself to say the words out loud. How was writing this? I read somewhere that the author Heather O’Neill in her book Lullabies for Little Criminals said that in writing certain passages about her 12-year-old protagonist, she felt like she herself was violating her, by leading her into these terrible situations. Here’s a passage from your poem “My Country Superstar Humility”:

When I can no longer sing I use a primitive method of signing in which whatever I point to is prefixed by “fuck” and suffixed by “hurt.” I point to my mouth. He translates, fucking mouth hurts. I point to my crotch. He translates, fucking cunt hurts.

In short, horrific things happen to your poor La La. Was it hard to write? How was the process different from writing The Bugging Watch?

Heather O’Neill is dead-on, it is like a violation, purposefully putting a character you love, especially a child, into a dangerous and degrading situation. As the writer of this story, I was making an agreement, in a way, to empower a villain, thereby establishing a sort of cahoots. And while I do not believe that artwork that deals with these sorts of shady subjects has to be redemptive, there is an innately redemptive quality to La La -- her innocent steadfast commitment to her dream. I admire this about La La.

Although the process in writing these books was similar, as they are structurally alike, writing Run did feel very different from writing The Bugging Watch because I wasn’t putting my protagonists, Harlan and Toland, into such an intense line of fire.

La La is from Hong Kong but is obsessed with American culture -- particularly country/cowboy culture. Here’s a passage from “Cowgirls Don’t Have Flat Faces”:

Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls.

Her mother blared COWGIRLS DON’T HAVE FLAT FACES gave her daughter a clothespin. La La put it on her nose. Wore it to school. Wore it to bed. Did not take it off even dyeing her hair.

She also likes Fruit Loops and blue bandanas and cowboy boots, Sissy Spacek, and Clint Eastwood. Did you consciously build out the character of La La? Or did she just emerge as you were writing? You mentioned earlier wanting to be the “female Asian Jim Morrison reincarnation.” How much of La La is based on you?

La La is a force of nature. I created her, and she created herself as the writing went on. She is heroic in her dauntlessness, a quality I can only aspire to, but can’t claim to possess. So how much of La La is based on me? I get asked that question more than any other question. Not a helluva lot. Even though I also love Fruit Loops, bandanas, and cowboy boots, only a little bit of La La is actually based on me. As for Clint Eastwood... well, La La and I do share that hallucination: on several difficult days, when I was a kid, I did “see” Clint, musical accompaniment and all.

In Run, La La has disgust for her captor but at the same time, she wants to do things that please him -- e.g., pretend that she doesn’t know he’s going to eventually kill her. The character Harlan in The Bugging Watch also has some strange desires. I know when we talked, you said that someone mentioned that The Bugging Watch was strange, and you were taken aback, and your husband said, “But Kim, it’s about a boy who’s in love with a dead girl.” You obviously don’t perceive your own work as being sad or bizarre -- considering you were surprised by this person’s interpretation. So how do you perceive your own stories?

I do not often chafe against the word “strange.” In fact, I actually (almost exclusively) like strange things. My problem with the term “strange” is when I suspect it is being used to dismiss a work as inaccessible. Sometimes folks use the term “experimental” to this end, a misuse I also loathe. But I am not so delusional that I do not think my books are sad and bizarre; in fact, in my submission cover letter to Tarpaulin Sky, I described The Bugging Watch as “demented.” So, yes, it is strange to love a dead girl. Or is it? Orpheus, Heathcliff -- maybe it isn’t so strange. All I know is, these things happen: children are abused and people live in denial about the passing of loved ones. There is Stockholm syndrome. There is the torture of unrequited love. And, yes, our strongest desires are sometimes pretty loony.

I mentioned your name to someone a while ago and he said, “I’ve never read her, but she’s kind of the It Girl right now in poetry, isn’t she?” It’s true that you’ve published your first two books in one year. How does that feel?

Really, It Girl? If my name is mentioned among the list of writers I’d place in that category, I am honored, of course; however, being It is transient, and I hope my work -- my characters -- will occupy a more permanent place. The Bugging Watch and Run came out of me at roughly the same time, so I was thrilled when they released as book objects simultaneously, as well.

What are you working on now? Is it a secret or can you tell me?

I am working on a few projects, and final touches on Run’s beefed-up edition, China Cowboy. Right right now, like today, I am working on a collaborative hybrid called UP AGAINST THE VAGINAL WALLS, MOTHERFUCKER!

Can we end there? I think that title is the perfect ending.

Elizabeth Hildreth is a regular contributor for Bookslut. She lives in Chicago and blogs at The Effect of Small Animals.