Cathy Park Hong on ‘Engine Empire’
August 23, 2011 | by Robyn Creswell
The summer issue of The Paris Review includes a series of poems by Cathy Park Hong. Hong has published two books of poetry, Translating Mo’um (2002) and Dance Dance Revolution (2007). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
The poems published in this issue come from a longer work, entitled “Fort Ballads.” How does it fit into your forthcoming book, Engine Empire?
“Fort Ballads” is part of the first section in Engine Empire. The poems in the collection range from a trilogy, ranging from Western ballads to love poems set in present-day industrial China to poems set in a virtual future. “Fort Ballads” follows a band of outlaw fortune-seekers who travel to a California boomtown during the 1800s. The boomtown isn’t real; it’s full of strange, violent, sometimes surreal happenings. It’s my own way of mythologizing California, which is where I’m from. The main character is “Our Jim,” who’s half Comanche Indian. In creating him, I was thinking of the typical iconic Western guys, like Billy the Kid, but his story is also reminiscent of Huck Finn and maybe a little of Faulkner’s Joe Christmas. He’s an orphan, a cipher, a boy trapped between identities, both innocent and vengeful. But the section isn’t all narrative—there are sound poems in there as well, where I let myself wallow in kitschy Western vernacular.
Your West has the familiar accoutrements—Winchesters, buffaloes, teetotalers, and Indians—yet it is eerily unromantic. What’s your reading of the myth of the frontier?
At first, I was nervous about exploring the Old West—it seems like a territory written by and for men. When I told people I was writing Western poems, they were like, Why are you interested? Why not? The Western has been done so many times that anyone can have a go at it. I think of Michael Ondaatje and his Collected Works of Billy the Kid, or the poet Joyelle McSweeney, who made a brilliant mash-up of Hannah Weiner and Annie Oakley. I just saw a terrible Korean film adaptation of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, set in the desert of 1930s Mongolia. The Western is now a global fantasy.
It’s hard to pin down what the myth means because the frontier is now so abstract. To dream of the frontier is to dream of progress. But there’s also the fantasy of the frontier as being lawless. There are no regulations that hamper the body; there is no superego in the frontier. In some ways, my book explores the myth of Manifest Destiny, in all its colonialist and capitalist implications. I start with the American Western, because the genre embodies the most familiar idea of the frontier, but I also explore the idea in the section set in China and in the last, futuristic section. Right now, we see China as this autocratic, neoliberal Frankenstein that’s growing out of control. But are the Chinese so different from Americans back then? Or even us now? In certain ways, the Western ideals of the frontier, of escaping regulation, are still alive today, but now they are carried on in the life of corporations rather than individuals.
The frontier is always the border of something, virgin territory where we can build new worlds, remake ourselves; always there’s this obsession with remaking ourselves. So to dream of the frontier is also to desire immortality. But there is no such thing as new territory. There are always previous civilizations, societies, families, and cultures. So when we build new worlds, there will be violence.
The violence in your poems doesn’t seem to be cleansing, or redemptive, as it is in many myths.
Oh no, I’m quite critical of that. I don’t create redemption for my characters. The narrative of redemption is a false and lazy conceit in art. Redemption through the act of violence is avoiding culpability.
Your speaker uses a rather gorgeous colloquial, full of echoes and innovations. How did you arrive at it?
I was in Los Angeles one summer and watching a lot of Sergio Leone films, and then my poems began to have this bad accent. This is not unusual, since many of my poems have bad accents. Added to that, I read Zane Gray, Larry McMurtry, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner’s Light in August. I had a couple of wonderful Old West dictionaries, and I also reread Osip Mandelstam’s poetry over and over. He is the odd writer out of that mélange I just mentioned, but there is a hauntedness to Mandelstam’s imagery that I wanted to capture. And I read Harryette Mullen, because she has such great fun with idioms, and I wanted that spirit. The Western vernacular is full of absurd puns, alliterations, scat rhymes, and so much of it incorporates Spanish and Native American languages. I wrote a few lipogram and abecedarian poems to accentuate that liveliness. A phrase I particularly love is “silk-popper,” which means stagecoach driver, or “buck nun,” which means bachelor. Of course, I’m not claiming any kind of authenticity. I was led more by my ear than anything else.
You seem to enjoy the clash of incommensurables—kitschy vernaculars and high lyricism, awkwardness and eloquence, or, in your first book, English and Korean.
I grew up speaking two languages, both of them mangled, so I am quite at home mashing disparate languages, idioms, and vernaculars together. This is probably most evident in my second book, Dance Dance Revolution, where I tried to invent a Creole. Engine Empire is more disciplined, in that I tried to keep it to one colloquial per section. I love finding the most awkward or unpoetic forms of expression and turning them into high lyricism. I’m a magpie for weird words. It’s a good way to help “enlarge the English stock,” as Hopkins once said.
The poems are made up of quatrains and couplets, and also stand-alone lines. None are orthodox sonnets, but they all seem to be close or distant cousins. How did you think about form while writing these poems?
That’s so interesting, because I wasn’t consciously thinking of the sonnet. But I was writing sonnets for other parts of the book and teaching them, so I must have internalized the form. I knew I wanted to write ballads and I tried to keep to quatrains, but I kept breaking them up into couplets and single lines because narrative pacing became more important than having a regular number of lines per stanza. There were a few sections that were originally a page long in prose, and I ended up whittling them down, until I got the sonnetlike form you see now. It was important for me that the sections be both fragmented and episodic, and that the titles act as both an interruption and guide to the poems. I love this one poem by Anne Carson called “Life of Towns,” where the titles themselves work as poetic lines, which is what I hoped to achieve with “Fort Ballads.”
The poems have a terrific pace, cutting between the close-up and the long shot. Did you learn that from Leone?
It wasn’t a deliberate influence, but maybe it was subconscious. Seeing so many movies, maybe I just soaked in that cinematic rhythm. I joked about writing a Western movie after I wrote “Ballad of Our Jim,” and I even pitched it to a filmmaker friend, but he wasn’t having it. Oh well! I’ll have to shelve it for the future.
Purchase the summer issue to read Cathy Park Hong’s poems.