2020 Contest: Interview with Poetry Judge Paul Tran

Dec 7, 2020Interviews

Paul Tran is the recipient of the Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Their work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere, including the Netflix movie Love Beats Rhymes with Azealia Banks, Common, and Jill Scott. They’re the first Asian American since 1993 to win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam, placing top 10 at the Individual World Poetry Slam and top 2 at the National Poetry Slam. Paul is the 2019-2020 Senior Poetry Fellow in the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis and the Poetry Editor at The Offing Magazine, which won a Whiting Literary Magazine Award from the Whiting Foundation.

Interview by Kelsey Nuttall

Black Warrior Review: In a couple of other interviews you’ve given, you emphasize the idea of poetry as investigation, the idea of the writing process as starting with a question or series thereof. What have been your greatest poetry-mined “discoveries,” revelations to date?

Paul Tran: Of the beliefs I’ve had about poetry, many of which have fallen away as I’ve changed as a poet and a person, this continues, somehow, to endure. I tell students each semester that the poem, to me, is achieved by #TheDeepIn: Discovery through Enactment of Emotional and Psychological Inquiry, Investigation, Insight, and Interiority. Discovery opposes dominant modes of announcement or transcription, simply, of what a speaker already observes about their experience. Discovery, instead, to borrow a phrase from Carl Phillips, is achieved by restless transformation of experience. This transformation occurs both at the level of content and form, a term I use to mean the imaginative and intentional patterning of language, to not express but enact experience. The experience enacted is hardly ever, for me, outside the self. That’s why I call it #TheDeepIn. That’s why W.B. Yeats says that out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric, whereas out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. The experience I explore is always, now, an inward one, and it remains my belief that poems get there, to that emotional and psychological arena, by way of Inquiry, Investigation, Insight, and Interiority.

The question, lately, that’s animated my poems, rather embarrassingly, is whether I’m wrong to believe that I can still be loved after all that’s happened to me. I’ve thought, as a rape survivor, that being marked by such violence made me unlovable. It’s been challenging enough to participate in the world, especially when considering how I hurt myself to reflect the ugliness I feel within, how I hurt others to displace, even momentarily, my own ugliness, and how the idea of my ugliness, pushing toward or against it, remains an influence on my worldview, behavior, and choices…It’s been all the more challenging to stay open to the possibility that love, from another or myself or my life, can be built and is, in fact, deserved. As a poet, I can’t help but see the word “lie” inside the word “believe.” I also can’t help but see, anagrammatically, the word “love” inside the word “violence.” It’s as though there can’t be violence without love, but there can be love without violence. That act, just now, of lyric acrobatics, of inquiry and investigation, is what I mean by discovery.


BWR: I’m interested in the process of poetic investigations that don’t turn up something immediately—or at all, too. How do you think about your pieces holistically? Do they have overarching, categorial questions they seek to answer as a collective, and—your work features a host of killer last-lines, conclusions—how do you think about these endings using the conceit of the investigation? How do you know when you’ve overturned the last stone for a particular piece? 

Paul Tran: Always I aim to be clear, with myself and others, particularly with students, that discovery through investigation isn’t synonymous with conclusion. It’s certainly not certitude. It’s not closure. Often I find that my poems lead to more questions, more poems, and it’s therefore the cultivation of stamina for relentless investigation, poem after poem, that defines the charge and labor of being, for me, a poet. I do think, however, that there’s a difference between poetic investigation where things, as you say, don’t turn up immediately because, indeed, the discovery is an ambivalence to outcome and poetic investigation where things don’t turn up because the poet, themselves, for whatever reasons, failed. I’ve failed, many times, over and over again, to write what I feel, in my heart and in my spirit, is a real poem because I couldn’t get myself or my ego, my investments in my doubts and beliefs, out of the way to reach for what John Keats calls “half-knowledge.” I merely, to borrow the psychological definition of confirmation bias, rendered in the poem, lyric line by lyric line, what I wanted myself, my speaker and reader, to know. I controlled, as I do when I feel powerless, the entire process in order to feel, paradoxically, powerful. And even when I’ve been in complete denial, when I’ve sworn what I wrote was a poem, an act of enactment and all, the text, which I won’t call a poem, betrayed me. It revealed, no matter how skillfully I may have used the fundaments of poetry—rhyme, meter, syntax, grammatical mood, versification—or the easily decorative poetic devices—description, detail, imagery, figuration, objective correlative—the text ultimately revealed what I tried to conceal from myself and the world.

I see, in some ways, my journey as poet as that of writing a poem across a lifetime. Though this is divided into individual poems and individual books, it’s still a singular and idiosyncratic mind at work, thinking through questions about life that might keep me alive. In my first book, All the Flowers Kneeling, the poems altogether examine how a speaker survives in the wake of violence. I don’t use the word “rape” anywhere in the book. I never say “trauma.” Each poem, instead, attends to the various and overlapping dimensions of survival: What if nobody believes me? What if things don’t happen for a reason? What if I decide, right here and now, that none of this matters, that I can change and live a different life? Is a life that isn’t this even available? What is my life? And in the framework of writing a poem across a lifetime, I see the poems in this book as a record of what my mind discovered. I needed, so badly, to search and document what I found so that I wouldn’t forget, so that history might not repeat itself, though it does…or because it does. More importantly, and perhaps more interestingly, I see each poem and the book itself, as another poet has taught me to see every poem and every book, is an argument about poetry and the making of poetry. This argument isn’t simply an aesthetic one. It’s a phenomenally political one. The argument is, at the end of the day, that the poem is a real poem, and that the mind that made the poem in its thinking, its discovery and enactment, is a real mind that belongs to a real person living a real life in a real place in a real time. This argument about realness is an argument that marginalized people throughout history have made: I’m here. I’m valid. Listen to me.

I know that I arrived at the end of a poem, at that last line or that last stone to overturn, as you say, when the discovery has been made. I know it’s discovery because I didn’t know it before. The discovery can be a revelation. It also can be a feeling. It’s usually, however, a thing that sends me into tremendous humiliation, tremendous guilt and regret, fear and confusion, and then tremendous liberation. I know this because humiliation, guilt, regret, fear, and confusion—these indications of powerlessness—are, for lack of a better term, the voices that speak most honestly to my ego. Perhaps it’s evident that I, unexceptionally so, grew up conditioned to please the people around me. I anticipated and mirrored what others wanted. I strategized and practiced my every move, becoming, ironically, just as manipulative as those who manipulated me. And to hide that fact, I hid myself, my interests and ideas, from everyone and myself. That’s why when I write a poem that reaches so far inward, that uncovers, finally, what lies beneath my ego, my hidden and unknown selves, I know I’m at the end because I’m humiliated by being seen. I feel guilt that I didn’t discover whatever before. I regret living my life how I’ve been living it. I’m afraid of what others will think. I’m confused about what, precisely, to do next now that I can’t unknow this. And I feel free or, at least, freer.

Everyone, I believe, has their conditions and their subsequent complexities. Everyone has an ego and a self secret even to them. Finding the voices that speak most honestly to all this, tracking their mutation across time and subject matter, is essential to knowing when one has arrived at discovery or the end of a poem. I should clarify, though, that the end of a poem doesn’t have to be synchronous with its discovery. Part of making a poem, especially in revision, is arranging when the discovery or discoveries—there can be many discoveries in a single poem, of course—occur by arranging language patterns. A poet must decide the intent and exact the impact of each patterned unit and, in doing so, the intent and impact of the end. The end of a poem, its final line, faces many literal and theoretical realities: it determines the length of the poem; it closes the stanza; it is, whether punctuated or not, end-stopped; it can’t be broken or enjambed; it contains a culminating sense of density or spareness in relation to the preceding line; it invokes, whether as a fragment or a sentence, in its syntax, the emotional and psychological connotations associated with its final grammatical unit, whether it’s a phrase or clause; and it invokes, whether read aloud or in the mind, the emotional and psychological connotations associated with its final sounds and rhythms, whether or not it’s in rhyme and meter. There’s more to say about concreteness and abstraction, closure and openness, surprise and suspense…, but with all these considerations in mind, in revision, I engineer how my poem can end in a way most persuasive to a reader. How do I persuade a reader to experience and understand what I just experienced and understood not merely in life but in writing about my life in this poem? If poems must enact, as I’ve said earlier, then that enactment better be persuasive for both the speaker and the reader. Here, and only here, is when the notion of audience enters, for me.

BWR: BWR values what we sometimes deem ‘the experimental’ and have fun allowing for different editors and guest editors to interpret the term. I’m curious about what this might mean to you—in or outside of the context of BWR. 

Paul Tran: If it’s truly a work of discovery, and if it delivers a persuasive argument about poetry itself, then I think a poem is “experimental” because its achievement required experimentation. My sense, generally, is that to communicate at all is to want to be understood, and to communicate this want, so language is carefully arranged to fulfill these wants. Such careful arrangement, anytime one writes, speaks, or even thinks—that’s already an experiment. Isn’t it?

BWR: Something that strikes me, especially, about your work is what feels like effortless musicality, lyricism. How do you think about sound and the precision of language as part of your practice? (How do you think about their relationship to spoken word v. ~page poetry~?) 

Paul Tran: An important text assigned to me during graduate school was Alfred Corn’s The Poem’s Heartbeat. This led me to Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, as well as John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason. From these thinkers I gathered that any manifestation of phonic echo, whether more specifically as rhyme or more generally as, to borrow from your question, musicality and lyricism, must arise from a sonic and a semantic imperative. Phonic echo suggests relationship, both in harmony and in opposition, and this relationship is what drives content and form toward meaning. Sometimes this arises without much effort, as when word choice seems to fall naturally into alliterative or rhyming units of patterned language, but other times it’s with great effort, great agony. Yet, nevertheless, the goal and the indication of that goal being achieved is its effortlessness, its seemingly inevitability. That a poem can and should and must sound like whatever its pattern suggests I, often, know not because “it sounds good” but because it makes my lyric discovery and argument most salient first for myself and then, hopefully, for my reader. If I’m not persuaded by my own discovery and argument, my intentional lyric act of manipulation, then how will any reader be?

In my first book is a “crown of sonnets,” though many are simply fourteen-line poems and not what I’d call sonnets anymore, which feature sections from the interiority of the speaker in terza rima. The crown, in ways, is a descent into an underworld, and I thought terza rima could be a resonant choice because Dante’s Divine Comedy, another descent into death for answers, was cast in terza rima. This means the poem rhymed ABA BCB CDC and so on. The crown, split in half, the first appearing in the first section of the book and the second appearing in the last section, ends the first half with a poem that asks: What happens if I understood [my rapist] and why he did this? Can I “get over” this and “move on”? The third stanza, whose rhyme scheme is CDC, ends the first line with the word “lake,” and for weeks I couldn’t, as people say, “come up with” a rhyme for that word. But I knew rhymes for “lake”: bake, cake, fake, make, rake, sake, take, wake…Even “opaque” rhymes with it. I couldn’t “come up with” the rhyme, however, because none of the semantic imperatives I devised for those words felt satisfactory. Basically, I thought, why put “cake” in this poem? (Though, also, why not?) It took me a long time to decide on the off-rhyme, “rage.” I remember the exact moment in time. And when it came to me, I knew. I’d been, beyond my knowledge, so afraid to articulate my rage at what happened, at my rapist and myself and my school and my family and the people who supported and didn’t support me, at how I felt unable to support myself, so when that word emerged from whatever subconsciousness, from the thorough annulment of the ego and the self, it fulfilled both the sonic and semantic imperative for that stanza, that line, and that utterance in the poem.

In fact, this notion of annulment is not unrelated to what I mentioned earlier about finding the voices that most honestly speak to us as we write so that we might know when discovery or discoveries occur. I’d long thought Keats’ theory of negative capability, which I too regard as a marker of great poems, to be the ability to contend with contradiction, opposing truths, or uncertainty without leaning into certitude, truth, or the impulse to reconcile with contradiction. I’ve found, instead, reading Louise Gluck’s Against Sincerity, that it’s “a willingness to “annul” the self” by “[divesting from] personal characteristics” or “existing beliefs” to “report faithfully” in a poem what a poet is determined to. I imagine, in my slow education of poetry, which began as fascination with contemporary writing and has grown, through the encouragement of wonderful teachers and friends, to include writing through the ages, that something like musicality or lyricism helped other poets to annul themselves: following a rhyme scheme, for instance, means adapting an utterance to complete that scheme, and in our adaptation, we might say something we hadn’t intended before. Likewise, following an objective correlative, a concentrated meditation on an object, through description or figuration, which I use to mean simile and metaphor, can result in annulment because it pushes the poet to think and think about how to make their utterance work within the constraints and subsequently the liberation of that object.

I can sense, or I tell myself I can sense, when a poem is written without annulment, when the ego and the self, its received ideas and investments, remain unquestioned, and as a result, I can sense when devices in a poem, such as musicality or lyricism, are deployed as expression rather than enactment, as decoration rather than discovery. Sound and the precision of language should get me closer to the truth in the writing process, and in revision, when I make the poem a thing for a reader, for someone who isn’t me and who may even be skeptical to me, sound and the precision—precision!—of language should persuade them to see things from my point of view. All this is part of the same task: to discover, to enact, to argue, and to persuade.

BWR: In my own work I find I circle around little obsessions, but these come and go and return and ebb and disappear and pop back up. Do you have these little, concentrated obsessions? What are they right now? What keeps coming back to you? 

Paul Tran: How do I live, how do I get closer to the life I want, and how do I know it’s really my life or what I want?

BWR: Something I think about often as I’m reading for the journal: How does what you permit in reading others’ work, what you value of theirs, differ from what you require of yourself? Where do these things converge?

Paul Tran: As an editor, and as a teacher, what I value or require of others doesn’t deviate from what I require of myself. My attention to thinking in a poem, to restless and relentless thinking from which discovery and the subsequent attempts at enactment, argumentation, and persuasion occurs, is what I look for from all art, from all literature, and therefore from all poems. Even when a poem I receive through Submittable or in the classroom doesn’t quite sing, or doesn’t quite meet my expectations at the level of craft, which is to say it doesn’t quite triangulate form and content toward meaning, I still find resonance if I can sense that the speaker, and by that logic the poet, has made some noteworthy discovery for themselves that I, too, should witness. Seldom, though, do I actually encounter such poems because, understandably, the very human impulse in making what some call “art” is just to render or represent what already observed about experience. Seldom is there transformation when, by and large, transcription remains currency in a cultural and political economy so imaginatively bankrupt and resolved to preserve this not in spite of but through its cooptation of diversity promoting lexicon. I find resonance, still, when I can elucidate these three questions that Mary Jo Bang taught me to ask: Who is speaking? Out of what ostensible silence did this speaker return to speak? And is this true?

I came to poetry because I had something to say. I thought I became a poet when my interest shifted from the representation of my own ego, my own received ideas and investments, to how I might say it—how I might, as Helen Vendler writes, “make” poetry from what was “given” to me. But I wasn’t a poet even then. I didn’t know until much later, until I practiced and read poetry far and wide, within and beyond my aesthetic sensibilities, that the enduring sensibility—and the deeply political sensibility, to me—is discovery or the poetics of investigation. And while this all might change, as I’m fairly confident it will, because it has and has to, I don’t know what else to believe.

Every day since that incident happened in my college dorm room the night before my twenty-first birthday, since my father thought he could do and get away with what he did when I was a child, since this and that and so many other things, as well as all the happiness and strength and triumph and pleasure that took place in between, I’ve asked and prayed to find my way through another day in a world where all is possible. Poetry isn’t where I go because I can’t figure out how to be here. Poetry is where I go to be here. It’s neither consolation nor comfort. It’s not redemption, and it’s definitely not revenge on circumstance. Poetry is my circumstance, and the revenge I take in writing is on all that I must let go of in order to be free. I don’t have time for any poetry, as a writer or editor or teacher, that isn’t committed to its own freedom—freedom from outside forces, sure, but freedom from inside forces absolutely. And while I’ve chosen a confessional lyric mode, I’ve seen this commitment to freedom from all modes of poetry, from all languages and times, and it’s this commitment that I now assume my political charge to help advance in the poems of the poets I work with and the poems I, myself, write.

I write because I want to be free. I write to discover how to get there. The poems and poets I love help me get there—line by line, thought by thought—and I can bear, suddenly, briefly, being alive.

Please be on the look out for Paul’s debut poetry book All the Flowers Kneeling, out from Penguin in Spring 2022!