Three Takes on an Aesthetic and a Synthesis

I wrote this essay on my personal aesthetics back in 2006, responding to a prompt from Chris Abani in the creative non-fiction class I took from him. Even then I was thinking about the linkages between poetry and programming. Anyway, I thought this might be of interest given the release of my new book, Babbage’s Dream, which explores beauty, loss, and wonder at the intersection between poetry and technology. Enjoy!

I. Writing as Apocalypse

Everything that is dead quivers. Not only the things of poetry, stars, wood,
flowers, but even a white trouser button glittering out of a puddle in the street.
Everything has a secret soul, which is silent more often than it speaks.

~ Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

What I want from my art and from my writing is to reveal what Kandinsky hints at in the above quote—to lay bare the “secret soul” of the seemingly ordinary world. Perhaps it is my rejection of a world where language has become arbitrary and meaningless, an insistence instead that there must be something that lies behind each word, as amorphous as it may be. I hold onto an old belief that writing is akin to sculpting—there is a blankness presented before in the page, but buried in that blankness is the remarkable and astonishing. It is up to me as a writer to discover what lies within. It is my obligation as well to not flinch when I find it, be it terrifying or joyful, brilliant or dark.

To be an apocalyptic writer, I must approach language with an awareness of each word’s historical and psychological weight. While it is impossible to have a complete knowledge of all the ways history and prior writings might inform a reader’s experience with a word, an awareness of the complexity of the reading experience and a close crafting of each line can help tune the reader in to a much richer experience.

What is beautiful then? From the apocalyptic standpoint, beauty arises out of the countless unfoldings of the natural world. The fractal and the infinite. To approach each object, place, and person with an exacting attention to detail will only reveal more astonishing detail, more unexpected beauty. It is an artichoke full of wings to echo Neruda. It is that white trouser button abandoned in a street puddle beneath the moon.

Perhaps it is the programmer in me that seeks this quarrying for a core. It is after all a recursive act to call upon the same function—examine_item(x)—which calls upon itself with increasing specificity until at last it reaches the indivisible and singular self, which can only be called its “secret soul.”

II. Writing as Exile and Memory

As the contemporary Chinese poet, Liu Hongbin, once said “Writing poetry is the beginning of exile.” From the outset, once we put ink to paper, the poem or essay has moved out of the home of our mind and into a strange new place from which it can never truly return. Writing exiles the idea from creator, exiles the artist from his community, and exiles the moment from its historical context. The work becomes a letter adrift in the world, without name or destination, it wanders from mind to mind, book to book, always in search of its rightful home.

Still, even if writing ultimately makes the work itself a refugee, the act of writing is an act of attempted salvation or restitution. We write to remember or recreate what we fear to lose, or most likely have already lost. I write to capture a certain stillness in place, the moment of the pendulum swing, even the sense of weightlessness there. If the present moment that I write becomes exiled from the past and future, I must find it a new land to set down roots. Each manuscript is a calling together of lost children from the same village who come stumbling out of darkness, violence, and obscurity into the space on the page.

If writing is a form of exile then what is beautiful must be that which echoes something from the land I came from, some familiar line or phrase borrowed from the language of loss and memory. Whether that land is a place in time, in the world, or in some buried emotional reality, it is a meeting ground for many people. It must be a universal language. Something that lies at the root of what we all long to say, but do not know how.

III. Writing as Invocation

It is an old Kabbalist tradition that should the true order of the verses of the Sepharith be revealed and spoken correctly, one could create worlds after the same fashion as this one, or raise the dead, or perform all manner of miracles. There is a force that lies within the transcribed word. To write is to record with the expectation that it will be spoken, whether solely in the mind, or audibly to the open world.

Whereas some might write to evoke a certain memory, I write at times to invoke a latent power, to awake what sleeps within the text itself. When I write, I frequently call out each line, expecting the next to appear. When I am stuck, I return to the beginning, and read each line aloud, till a momentum builds, and the next line forms even as I come to the place which is blank.

If writing is a call to the unknown within the page, or to some unseen deliverer of words, then I, as a writer, must be willing to sit in what sometimes can be an almost unbearable silence. But I have also learned, that sometimes the longer the silence, the deeper the space that will be revealed.

If writing is an invocation, then beauty must lie in the depths of the breath before and after the words. That is to say, what is beautiful in writing will long to appear on our lips. We will wish to speak it, to hear how it turns in the mouth. How it falls on the ear. How it twists in the moment of speaking and becomes something unforeseen. How even saying it brings it to some form of reality.

Writing is an invitation to the world of ghosts and memories to step into a moment. To write is open a conduit to something bigger than our own consciousness, be it the collective consciousness of Jung, or the broad world of semiotics and symbols.

Synthesis—A Certain Alchemy

At the end of the day what I’m really after is the creation of a text that an amalgam of these three approaches. I want to write in such a way that there is a deep emotional and spiritual resonance in the language, a lyricism not born of artifice but of some vision of the world that lies beneath the surface of this one. I feel (at least for poetry) that sometimes fact must take second place to the emotional truth of the moment. In writing creative non-fiction, the challenge is finding the correct rhetorical moment—the kairos—for speaking. Perhaps what I want is work that operates much like a Zen rock garden whose completeness cannot be observed from one vantage point. Both the writer and the reader must move and try different views before the garden’s beauty can be opened to full appreciation.

If writing is part invocation, then it is akin to the way I program. Each line calls out to the next. Or more precisely, I write and reread what precedes it. Then I place a demand in my mind for the next line. Then I write that line and the next until I can go no further. Then I reread from the beginning till something new appears. At times I am a compiler stopping at every mis-coded sequence, reworking the faulty lines till the eye crosses over the length of the piece without being halted by inconsistency or error.

Writing remains a revelation of the world and of the self. I maintain a deep belief in purpose and meaning. That the elements that surround me have significance. That the fundamental language we speak is image and sound—to understand the world in detail is to move toward fluency in that language. Confucius once taught that calling things by their proper names is the beginning of wisdom. I believe this implicitly. But paradoxically, I also believe a fundamental idea from computer science, that the shortest most accurate description of a program and its workings, is the program itself. That is to say, the only name for a thing is the thing itself. A poem simultaneously describes and enacts what it describes. It is a condensed form of emotional reality.

Perhaps what I’m saying is that I am looking for a home. And the poem is looking for home. And emotional truth that triggered the poem, is looking for a home. And we’re all looking for names for ourselves and our experience. The three of us. The text where we meet—this brief intersection which may or may not bring us back together in the future—becomes something that transcends all of us: a document of that moment and a window on all three.

From the Archive: Unpublished Interview, Northern Poetry Review (2010)

Back in 2010, I was sent interview questions from Northern Poetry Review and fully intended on delivering a finished interview.  While I was able to respond to all the other questions, I found myself stymied by the first question which  asked me to contemplate the relationship between sons and fathers.  Even though it had been 3 years since my father’s death, I did not know if I had answers and anything substantive to say – I was uncertain of my response as it was taking shape.  Recently I came across the unfinished and unsent interview and decided to update my answers, if only for myself. I still don’t know if I’ve expressed to an answer to the first question.  Perhaps it’s really not an answer, perhaps it’s more of a gesture toward an answer—and for now, I’m fine with that. I’m fine knowing that I don’t have all the answers.

Some of my thinking has grown and changed in the 7 years since the time of this interview, but there’s a lot that’s still very much who I am and what I think about.  Displacement, dislocation, loss, and memory.

Among the remarkable images in your book include the idea that your father’s body has “grown more wind than flesh.” I have my own poem about the fear of losing my father. At the risk of a vague question, what is it about men and their fathers?

Everything. We want to be like them. We want to be different from them. We are afraid of becoming them. We lean on them. We ignore them. We want to be stronger, wiser, happier, more prosperous than them.

In the last poem in The Lost Country of Sight, I describe a dream in which my father stands on the shore and scatters the ashes of his father while I watch at his side. There’s a moment in the poem when my father and I pause and listen, waiting for “whatever marks the distance between a father and a son.”

I think that moment for me is the beginning of an answer to this question. I don’t know if there’s a succinct answer, but perhaps it lies in the complexity of the bond between fathers and sons – how a father is many things at once and at different times: a trailblazer, a role model, a rival, a counselor, a mirror, a landmark, and a friend.

When I left home the first time to attend university, my father pulled me aside and confided in me that he would not live a long life. He knew that the combination of diabetes, Addison’s disease, and obesity would mean he most likely would be around when I came to be his age. It was a sobering thought – one that stuck with me and colored much of how I wrote and thought and engaged with world and with my family. Even now, years after his death at 59, I am haunted by his words, aware of my mortality, and conscious of the ephemerality of each day and interaction.

Every father and son relationship is a little different, but I do think that whether as a presence or an absence, fathers play a critical role in defining the lives and views of their sons. Which perhaps is unsurprising, given how much of our lives are spent being compared to our fathers. When our fathers at last are gone, we find ourselves lost, momentarily unmoored and untethered, until we realize that their words, actions, and dreams continue on reflected in all we do to either carry them on or leave them in the past.

Which is to say, I think we are always either striving to emulate some aspect of them or actively constructing ourselves in opposition to them. Our lives in this respect become one long conversation with our fathers. And then one day we wake up and that father is gone. The conversation becomes one-sided; what we could not say or could not do, remains unsaid and undone; and in the end, we find ourselves speaking to memories, ghosts, quiet rooms, and the empty page.

Your opening poem in The Lost Country of Sight, is a poem called “In the Long Dream of Exile,” and other poems have lines about “small children / in light weight clothes / almost ascend into the sky,” or that someone can be “the one who is always nowhere, too late and too soon.” There’s very much a sense of displaced people in your work – do you agree, and can you elaborate on that?

Displacement and dislocation are certainly themes that run through these poems. In part this preoccupation with being out-of-place stems from my own personal experiences as someone who has grown up in a great variety places, cultures, and countries. Our family moved frequently when I was younger and as an adult, I have continued to be somewhat rootless, moving every few years for work or graduate school. And yet, in writing and thinking about personal exile and displacement, these separations from persons, places, languages, and moments I have loved, I have found that the desire to reconnect, return, and reconstruct is actually quite universal and common in our increasingly destabilized and fractured modern society. One does not need to leave a country or language behind to feel this sense of longing, but can experience displacement within the isolation of urban living, in the compartmentalization of what we do for work, or within the seemingly insurmountable divide between where we are now and where we long to be. Perhaps at the root of this is our fear of losing “home,” whether “home” is a physical location, a configuration of people, a spiritual moment, or an emotional space. We all long for “home” and try to salvage what we can through memory and elegy. While these poems often begin in concrete moments where some aspect of “home” is in jeopardy, these poems try to move beyond the sphere of personal loss and threat of loss and resonate with larger and often more abstract versions of these anxieties. Often when the “home” we seek no longer exists in this physical world, we must build again in world of words on the page.

Your bio suggests you grew up in places as distinct as Vancouver, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Do you consider yourself Canadian? Does nationality even matter when it comes to poetry?

Although I’ve stopped consciously thinking about nationality and citizenship when I write, my writing does remain deeply influenced by the many years I spent in Saskatchewan. The long open roads, the high vaulted skies, the seemingly endless flat prairie horizons, and the cold that crept in through thick clothes, windows, and doors every winter – all these things find a place in the work, cement themselves as part of a world from which ideas and poems spring forth. I count myself lucky and blessed to have grown up in a place and time before the internet was all pervasive, without ubiquitous Gameboys and Xboxes, with ample time and opportunity to be outside. We camped in summer and traveled back roads to visit friends year round. Sometimes we’d stop at the edge of a gravel farm road and watch the stars overhead, thousands upon thousands, and the blue-purple curve of the Northern Lights bending in some astral breeze. What does it mean to be a Canadian writer? I don’t really know, but if it has anything to do with a love of the land and a proximity to the natural world, perhaps I am a Canadian writer. I don’t there’s a clear “check one” approach to determining one’s nationality. The more we travel and immerse ourselves in new places, languages, and cultures, the more complicated such determinations become. The country of the heart has no clear borders, no lines of demarcation. When I write there are Canadian influences no doubt, but also many things I have gleaned from the culture and language of Taiwan and China, from my experiences as a computer programmer, and from the countless interactions and conversations I have had with other travelers on my way. Hong Liu Bin, a Chinese poet-in-exile, once said, “The poet himself is a China” and I think perhaps this is the reality of 21st century nationality – we don’t “belong” to countries anymore, rather we build them within ourselves. So in some respects, I carry a China, a Taiwan, a Canada, and wherever else I go within myself. Each is a country in my own image. Each is lost and found again on the page.

I assume you’re a fan of Jack Kerouac based on “For Sal Paradise, Lost in America.” Is that correct? And what other writers have proved to be an influence?

Confession: I didn’t actually read Kerouac’s On the Road until I was well into my MFA, so in this respect always hesitate when people ask if I’m a fan of Kerouac’s work. I think I am, but it might just be that I loved the way the novel captured much of the same wanderlust that runs through my own family. My father’s father rode the rails during the Great Depression as a young man looking for work. My father traveled through many countries and regions throughout his life, partly for work, partly for research, and often just for the joy of seeing old places. We were always moving. By land, by air, by sea.

My father was a firm believer in road trips and we spent many summers out camping, traveling cross-country, and touring forgotten places. I was also an active Scout and enjoyed the opportunities it provided to journey with only what we could carry on our backs. Even now I find myself driving long distances across country when it might be simpler to fly. Even in Los Angeles, I like to wander the city at night on foot. The open spaces and the quiet unknown corners of the world continue to fascinate me. When I read Kerouac’s novel, I knew I recognized something familiar: a love of the open road, of possibilities, of leaving things behind. The poem grows out of that – of being nowhere and everywhere at once. Of being lost and in awe of the world.

Among the list of other writers who have influenced me, I would happily include Philip Levine and Li-Young Lee, as well as the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the King James Translation of the Bible. My first encounter with contemporary American poetry was through Levine’s New Selected Poems. I recall that first moment as I stood in a used bookstore thumbing its pages and was struck by the perfect balance between image, lyric, and narrative captured in a simple condensed language. I had just returned from Taiwan and was lost as to how to write poetry again. I knew nothing of contemporary poetry and poets and yet when I read “Letters for the Dead,” I knew something special was happening in that poem and I wanted to find a way to write like that. To find beauty in the physical evidence of the world, the small forgotten artifacts and signs of our passing. Later, a friend introduced me to Li-Young Lee’s work, and I was struck this time by the way the spiritual and the physical combine, how the lyric text is made flesh, and again, the poem can be pared down to a powerful configuration of word, image, and a moment upon which everything hinges. Over the years, I’ve been inspired by other great poets and books of poetry: Dylan Thomas, Czeslaw Milosz, Jane Kenyon, Mark Strand, Jon Pineda, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Larry Levis, Pablo Neruda, and many more. I have also found inspiration in Nicolas Bouvier’s The Japanese Chronicles, a rare piece of travel writing which blends personal narrative, Japanese history, and translated classical poetry. Andre Achiman’s essays on exile and identity have also been immensely helpful as I’ve unpacked and interrogated the ideas of exile, home, and return.