Interview: Annie Kim
Annie Kim’s second collection, Eros, Unbroken (2020), is the winner of the 2019 Washington Prize and follows her debut collection, Into the Cyclorama, winner of the Michael Waters Poetry Prize (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2016) and finalist for the Foreword INDIES Best Poetry Book of the Year. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Four Way Review, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Plume, and Pleiades, as well as on The Slowdown podcast. The recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Hambidge Center, Kim works at the University of Virginia School of Law as the Assistant Dean for Public Service and teaches public interest lawyering. She is also a violinist, and as poet, she has collaborated with composer Aaron Stepp. This interview took place over email.
Rebecca Morgan Frank for The Florida Review:
In Eros, Unbroken, the preface poem, “Confession,” introduces us to two characters in this collection: Scarlatti and his friend Farinelli, a castrato. What drew you to these two figures as subjects?
One day I was listening to a Scarlatti album by pianist Anne Queffélec. I’d always thought of Scarlatti’s sonatas as these tiny, quick, chandelier-like things. But as I listened to the rollercoaster of emotions in the second piece on this album, the K.27 sonata, I was struck by how stormy and personal it felt. I was hooked.
As I Googled away, I learned that no one knows much about Scarlatti’s life. But I did find page after page about his friend, the singer Farinelli. Like a lot of promising young male singers at the time, Farinelli had been castrated as a boy to preserve the beauty of his voice. He went on to become the preeminent opera singer of his day. It’s hard to picture now, but castrati in 18th-century Italy were like K-Pop royalty. These boys were groomed for years to become the next big thing. Eventually, then, after a successful career on-stage, Farinelli met Scarlatti in the court of Philip V, where Scarlatti had been working as a music instructor to the princess. Farinelli was hired by the queen to sing each night to her mad husband as a form of musical therapy.
As you can tell, there’s plenty of drama here already! In a strange way, though, that drama seemed like the perfect counterpart to the story I was starting to write about my own life. I had been working on emotionally raw poems about my early relationship with my father. Writing about the body—my body—as the object of violence was something I’d never done before. Not fun. Locating an analogue of sorts in Farinelli made me feel better, more connected. The two “Castrato” poems in my book, then, emerged from my efforts to imagine Farinelli as a boy sacrificing his body for his music.
In “Uses for Music,” you begin, “Because there is no soundtrack for the brain. / Because nothing has the beauty of a cage / you can enter when you want and leave behind.” This collection is steeped in music, from musical terms to musical forms and instruments (including the body.) What is your own background with music?
My musical background is pretty typical for an Asian American—I started playing violin in grade school, took lessons, did youth orchestras. Then, after a 13-year hiatus, I started playing again in a local chamber orchestra around the same time that I began my MFA writing program. Performing music has always given me a crucial emotional outlet. Now, those emotions are performed, as the quote from “Uses for Music” acknowledges. But those performances are still cathartic and restorative.
I think my musical experience also affects my everyday writing in subtle ways. It definitely informs how I think about progression or development. Playing Western classical music allows you to absorb musical structures like sonata form, theme and variation, preludes and fugues. These are all about creating patterns and then disrupting them. And, at the most basic level, you’re always moving between the poles of tension and release because you’re always driving toward resolution. Fast then slow, loud then soft. While I’m not consciously thinking about any of these musical strategies when I’m writing, they’re somewhere deep in my bones, in my inner ear.
Music also took on a major role in Eros, Unbroken. At a symbolic level, the body of the violin—my violin—became a metaphor for my own body. Both bodies can be violated, broken, and, fortunately, mended. In fact, I was practicing one day while writing this book when the soundpost inside my violin came loose from its upright position. Though the soundpost is just a tiny wooden stick, no bigger than a dowel, it’s essential to creating the violin’s voice. That dislodging felt terrible but revelatory—it was the necessary snapping that has to happen when you start grappling with old traumas, as I was.
I was also obsessed with trying to convey musical counterpoint—multiple notes, multiple voices—in words. It’s not really possible. But in the long sequences in the book (“Violins: Violence” and “A Hysteresis Loop”) and, most visibly, in “After Sonata Form,” I tried to suspend and juxtapose voices so that the reader could “hear” the first line still ringing a little even when the second line comes in.
Your poem “Confession” even ends with the definition of counterpoint. Can you say more about engaging in this sort of poetic counterpoint with the collection’s larger narrative threads? Did this affect the overall shaping of this book?
Yes, and in every possible way! At its heart, counterpoint is about having your cake and eating it too. Two voices carry on simultaneously, going wherever they want but moving in ways that create productive tension and contrast. I was convinced I could find a way to counterpoint my autobiographical story with the Farinelli/Scarlatti one despite how crazy that seemed. I won’t lie—there was a lot of cursing.
Creating counterpoint with these two lines meant that I had to think hard about how to sequence the poems in the book. Certain material had to be introduced at particular points for narrative reasons. At the same time, I found that simply alternating story lines in an A/B/A/B fashion didn’t work. After a million different mash-ups and months of trial and error, I landed on a rough order that zigzagged between the two stories at moments that made emotional and dramatic sense. And, of course, a year after that first draft, I switched things around again!
Counterpoint also made me focus on how to make each story line stylistically distinctive. This was hard because the poems in the autobiographical strand ranged a lot in form. For instance, I had multi-page sequences composed primarily in short-lined, irregular stanzas, alongside a number of more traditional one-page poems. The Farinelli/Scarlatti pieces I decided to set as letters and dialogues. While I didn’t attempt writing in an archaic diction, I did use loose blank verse to give them a bit more cohesion.
Can you talk a little bit about your path to becoming a poet? When and where did you first come to poetry?
Though I read poetry here and there throughout college, I didn’t try to write it until I was nearly thirty. I was practicing law. I was unhappy. I thought a lot about whether I wanted to have kids and decided that I didn’t. Late one night while I was having trouble falling asleep, I went downstairs and wrote a sonnet because that was the only poetic form I knew. It was a bad sonnet. But writing it felt so good! I started reading poems, writing poems, and then went to a few writers’ conferences where I met some wonderful teachers like David Baker. I eventually bit the bullet and applied to the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College which, miraculously, let me in. I was so new to writing that it hurt. After graduating, I still felt adrift and unsure of myself, as many people do.
Really, it wasn’t until I stopped practicing law and started working at my alma mater, the University of Virginia School of Law, that I finally had the mental space to write well. Working with students taught me how to be more open, vulnerable, and emotionally expressive—all of which helped my creative work.
You not only have a background as a lawyer, but in fact also serve as a dean in the Law School at the University of Virginia. Do you find that this background, with your training and experience in legal rhetoric, influences your approach to poetry, particularly your poetic arguments and structures?
All law students go through a writing boot camp when they start school. In that boot camp, you’re drilled on how to structure your writing, sentence by sentence. There’s even an acronym for how to organize your paragraphs called IRAC or CRAC. It goes like this: Issue (or Conclusion) – Rule – Application – Conclusion. Legal writing forces you, then, to get to your point quickly, signal where you’re going, and build in explicit transitions.
So when you consider how much poetry relies on intuition, surprise, jump cuts and leaps, you can imagine what it’s like for lawyers to write poetry! At the same time, all that focus on structure and argument probably forced me to be more critical of my writing than I would otherwise have been. Does this statement make logical sense? If it doesn’t make sense, does it still belong here?
These days I’m much more interested in loose poetic structures than in arguments. Structures that progress and resolve, sometimes narratively, but not always in fully explicable ways. How does an extended image, for instance, complete the “argument” of a narrative passage, for instance? How do tonal shifts and modulations “argue” different stances of the speaker? I love to see how poems can quickly and stealthily open up the infinite gray space within any subject.
The longer poem “Violins: Violence” feels like the heart of this book—this is a poem that wrestles with difficult material in part by seeking ways to connect the words themselves, as well as through dialogue with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. What are the roots of this poem’s engagement with this particular text?
I was still working as a lawyer when I first read the Meditations. Though I liked my job, I got easily frustrated by people. It was comforting to read the inner musings of a man who had legitimate reasons to be stressed out (he was Emperor!). The form of the Meditations—serial, fragmented, often intimately voiced—reminded me why journal writing and, really, all forms of writing to yourself, can be powerful.
The text came to mind also because I was doing a lot of self-talk throughout the book, channeling the second-person voice. “Last night you dreamed again / about your father,” was one of the first fragments I wrote in the second person that eventually coalesced, with other bits, into “Violins: Violence.” And the Meditations, of course, are written mainly in the second person, including the passage at the start of Book Two quoted in this poem:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. . . .
That second-person pronoun creates such an interesting and productive distance between the speaker and the self. It doesn’t exist when we simply say, “When I wake up in the morning, I should tell myself…” It acknowledges a legacy self. A self that can be interrogated, grieved, and consoled.
One of the highlights of this collection is the series of Eros poems strung throughout the book. The imagery in these poems, among others, appears almost painterly. What role, if any, does visual art play in your writing: where do you turn to for visual inspiration or connection?
Like a lot of poets, I love visual art—its freedom and wordlessness. And sometimes I even try to write poems about art in the ekphrastic tradition. These are mostly terrible. For instance, I think I’ve attempted once a year for the past ten years to write a poem about Bernini’s massive sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Ditto for some seaport paintings by Claude. These poems fail because there’s no way to turn a bridge into a tambourine—one art doesn’t translate into another.
But I’m always interested in the poem as a vehicle for seeing. Writing imagery, for me, is like sticking my head under the black cloth of an old-school camera. Relaxing and absorbing, all at once. Until you mentioned it, though, I hadn’t noticed how much the Eros poems grapple with seeing. How much they want to touch. Eros isn’t about having, after all; it’s about wanting. Maurice Merleau-Ponty has a beautiful essay, “Eye and Mind,” in which he says that seeing “is to have at a distance.” To enjoy a “strange possession.” The painter’s work, then, is to make visible what the eye sees but cannot hold. The poet does that, too, but also tries to make visible what can’t be seen. To suggest the fine tissue layers of memory, thought, and feeling.
As for the art I go to for inspiration, I’m a sucker for Byzantine and early Renaissance religious painting. I love busy triptychs. Goldleaf. Virgins wearing angular blue robes. The summer light of Claude Lorrain. The wintry light of Hendrick Avercamp. All of Velázquez, Lucas Cranach’s Judiths, Klimt’s landscapes, Courbet’s life-sized Burial at Ornans, the abstract paintings of Richter in which you can occasionally glimpse a stream in the woods.
What poem or collection of poems do you find yourself returning to across your life as a poet?
Oh, so many books by Frank Bidart! Especially his chapbook Music Like Dirt, which is both searing (like all his work) but also enormously generous. I could name more collections, but I hate it when people cheat on questions like this. Okay, I’ll cheat just a little: every year I read a poem by John Donne called “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” It’s about trying like hell to calm one’s fears about death. And it contains some of the most moving metaphors I’ve ever read: Donne surrendering his body as an instrument to be “tuned at the door” so he can become God’s “music.” Though I’m a staunch agnostic these days, I grew up in the evangelical tradition. Something about Donne’s struggles with faith in this poem and in the holy sonnets pierces me every time.
If you were to build a poetic family tree, who are some of the writers you would be sure to include?
In addition to Bidart and Donne, I’d add my former teacher Rick Barot, Robert Hass, Anne Carson, Susan Stewart, and Tomas Tranströmer. From the twentieth century and earlier, Zbigniew Herbert has meant a lot to me (Mr. Cogito!), as has Elizabeth Bishop, Horace, and Rilke. On reflection, I see that this tree of mine is pretty old and overwhelmingly white. Sadly, it doesn’t include many wonderful poets—including many poets of color—whom I love and respect. But the poets I’ve named are the ones who nourished and challenged me when I was just starting to write and whose words continue to vibrate in my subconscious.
Is there a third collection of poems in the works? What are you working on now?
Something is in the works, I hope! The pandemic unleashed a lot of prose in me, for whatever reason. Some of the new pieces I’ve written seem to fit squarely in the prose poem tradition. Others are more like short fables. In many of these I’ve been trying to foreground the artifice of poetry, the “so what?” of poetry. And letting humor come in. So maybe these pieces will pave the way for a hybrid collection at some point.
In a completely unrelated project, I’m toying with the idea of writing an opera libretto based on Eros, Unbroken. I’m taking a class offered by the Seattle Opera (one gift of the pandemic!) that’s sparked my interest, and I’ve been talking with my friend, composer Aaron Stepp, who has more experience with this than I do, about how we might write a chamber opera. Whether or not we’re able to actually do this, I just love thinking about the narrative and other creative challenges that would come with this project.