The Assay Interview Project: Lee Ann Roripaugh
January 4, 2020
Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of five volumes of poetry: tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 (Milkweed Editions, 2019), Dandarians (Milkweed, Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The South Dakota State Poet Laureate from 2015-2019, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review
About tsunami vs. the fukushima 50: In March 2011, a tsunami caused by an earthquake collided with nearby power plant Fukushima Daiichi, causing the only nuclear disaster in history to rival Chernobyl in scope. Those who stayed at the plant to stabilize the reactors, willing to sacrifice their lives, became known internationally as the Fukushima 50.
In tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, Lee Ann Roripaugh takes a piercing, witty, and ferocious look into the heart of the disaster. Here we meet its survivors and victims, from a pearl-catcher to a mild-mannered father to a drove of mindless pink robots. And here, too, we meet Roripaugh’s unforgettable Tsunami: a force of nature, femme fatale, and “annihilatrix.” Tsunami is part hero and part supervillain—angry, loud, forcefully defending her rights as a living being in contemporary industrialized society. As humanity rebuilds in disaster’s wake, Tsunami continues to wreak her own havoc, battling humans’ self-appointed role as colonizer of Earth and its life-forms.
“She’s an unsubtle thief / a giver of gifts,” Roripaugh writes of Tsunami, who spits garbage from the Pacific back into now-pulverized Fukushima. As Tsunami makes visible her suffering, the wrath of nature scorned, humanity has the opportunity to reconsider the trauma they cause Earth and each other. But will they look?
Heidi Czerwiec: Lee, your writing–poetry, prose, and hybrid–has meant a lot to my own sense of craft over the past decade, so I’m thrilled to be able to talk with you more in-depth about this continuum in your work. Thank you for participating in this interview.
So much of your writing and writing/personal identity seems to be blended: poetry/nonfiction, Japanese/American, queer femme–can you talk a bit about how these intersect and divide for you?
Lee Ann Roripaugh: Empire, and particularly late-stage capitalist empire, loves its fixed, stable categories. For Empire, to be able to pigeonhole something or someone is to render something/someone “knowable” and “masterable.” This sense of mastery, or power, then becomes a legitimization for perpetuating the false myths of empire, oppression, and stereotype, as well as perpetuating false rationales for continuing to objectify, commodify, and consume those who occupy marginalized identities.
Identity, however, is never fixed, stable, or essential, but is instead complex, fluid, sinuously mobile, shape-shifting, and frequently dependent on context–all the more so for people who occupy multiple marginalized subject positions. Empire would love for us to succumb to its oppressive categories and labels, its simplistic packaging and tokenizations, its predictable commodifications. Empire would love nothing more than for us to be skewered lepidoptera on pins. I think that intersecting and intersectional identities form a significant aspect of how I conceive of my own identity and embodiment, my ideological and pedagogical choices, as well as my aesthetic proclivities--both thematic and formal--because these easy categorizations, these false “masteries,” play such a key role in enabling a hegemonic center to exclude and oppress the margins/marginalized.
In the same way that Empire pressures me to be more categorizable, identity-wise (and, by extension “masterable”), capitalism likewise pressures my art to be more categorizable (and, by extension “masterable”), and these two pressures are oppressively interlinked, I feel, and to blur and blend these falsely essential categories, both thematically and formally is, for me, not only a representation of the ways in which I experience identity, but also a means of aesthetic resistance.
As editor of the South Dakota Review, you’ve subverted the traditional “Editor’s Note” at the front of most issues in literary journals, using that space to write beautiful, meditative lyric essays instead. In particular, I’m thinking of “Bodies, Rest, and Motion” in 49:1&2 with its juxtaposed consideration of migrating cranes, travel, literary conferences, and diaspora:
The first time I attended the AWP Conference after having observed the cranes, I couldn’t help but notice striking similarities between the annual writers’ conference and the annual staging of the cranes. Consider this: Writers fly in from across the globe to spend their days in the open field of the AWP Bookfair, where they make their way up and down rows of tables as if they were rows of corn… Not to mention the posturing, the preening, the elaborate mating rituals. Flapping? Skyward bill-pointing? And there’s dancing, too, at AWP--dancing that is, unlike the cranes, so notoriously bizarre, so regrettably ungainly, that it’s oft-mocked as a sort of running gag on Facebook as well as throughout the blogosphere.
Or 53:2’s “The Wind Phone,” about a still-standing phone booth Japanese tsunami survivors use to communicate with the dead, and both the historical and current difficulties you’ve had communicating with, and between, your Japanese mother and American father, especially now that her health is deteriorating and he has passed (for which I’m so, so sorry), as in this stunning juxtaposition:
Over 10,000 people have come to Otsuchi to visit the kaze no denwa to dial up their dead or missing on the disconnected rotary dial phone. Sometimes they share their daily news, or express their regrets. Sometimes they call to say please come back, to beg for a response, to implore the dead to look out for one another, or to simply say that they are lonely.
Could you talk about this editorial decision, and how you imagine these editor’s essays functioning?
Since its founding in 1963, South Dakota Review started and maintained a tradition of including an editorial essay in lieu of an “Editor’s Note,” titled “Literary or Not.” Under the previous two editorships, the “Literary or Not” essay became a dispatch, of sorts, written about and from the region, with an informal, folksy, and frequently humorous tone. My first impulse, upon taking over the editorship in 2011, was to simply do away with “Literary or Not,” but at the same time, I wanted to continue to honor some of the longstanding traditions of the magazine (as an early platform for Native American writers, for example), while also making a serious commitment to broadening both the cultural and aesthetic scope of the journal. Furthermore, as the first woman, non-white, non-straight editor of the magazine, I worried that cutting the editor’s essay might be too self-effacing a gesture with respect to the literary lineage of the editorship.
Additionally, on the occasions that I’d guest-edited the journal prior to taking over the editorship, I’d particularly enjoyed writing a lyric essay to preface the issue, employing the fluid, hybrid style I’d been cultivating on my blog, and the response to these early essays was gratifying. In fact, one of the essays was listed as an Essay of Note in Best American Essays! So I decided to keep the essay, and to continue with the lyric, hybridized style and tone. My vision for the ways in which the essays interact with the journal is that they still, in many respects function as a dispatch, of sorts, from and about space and place, but--in line with the new mission of the magazine--that they also complicate our ideas about place: complicating who gets to speak about place, complicating place in terms of bringing it into conversation with urgent ecocritical concerns, as well as complicating place through refusing to disconnect it from legacies of Empire, as well as tying place into very personal questions of self and identity. The hybridity of the essays, I hope, reflects the various hybridities I aim to represent and publish within the pages of the journal.
You’re primarily known as a poet, and in fact served as South Dakota’s Poet Laureate for the past few years, but I’m especially interested in discussing your prose and hybrid work that you brought up, found in a few disparate venues, which has been such a compelling touchstone for me personally, as both a reader and writer. Has Sei Shōnagon, whose Pillow Book you reference in your poetry, also been a model for your prose? How so? Or, have you been inspired by other models?
Sei Shonagon and her Pillow Book have definitely been a model for my own hybrid prose work, yes! I remember when it seemed as if there was a lot of talk about the ways in which hybrid forms were “edgy” and “nontraditional” and I immediately thought to myself, “According to whose tradition?” When I became interested in and influenced by 10th-century Heian period Japanese women writers, it occurred to me that these hybrid forms--these forms that Western, patriarchal canonical literary norms were labeling as “nontraditional”--were, on the contrary, quite traditional, and, moreover, emerged from a literary tradition that I, for the first time, found myself in alignment with. During the Heian period, a time of incredible literary renaissance in Japan, not only did Lady Murasaki write the first extant novel, The Tale of Genji, but women writers such as Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon, Princess Shikishi and many others were producing work that seamlessly and deftly blended genres such as memoir, journal writing, travel writing, creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. Furthermore, traditional Japanese forms such as haibun (which combines descriptive travel writing embedded with haiku) or the zuihitsu (an extemporaneous “running brush” poetic prose piece that similarly combines techniques drawn from multiple genres) fall clearly within the perimeters of what we consider to be prose hybrids. In this sense, hybrid genres can perhaps be viewed as an alternate (and significant!) literary tradition within which one can align oneself--a non-Western literary tradition, and, perhaps most importantly, a tradition dominated by women writers. And so this is yet another reason why I’m so drawn to, and why I love, hybrid-genre work.
And, yes! I find that many of the women writers I currently admire are themselves hybrids of a sort, working in these hybrid forms in ways that simultaneously seem to pay homage to alternate, women-centered traditions, while simultaneously constructing innovative or transgressive spaces: Kimiko Hahn’s postmodern remix of the zuihitsu, for example, as bricolage and collage interspersed with searing slashes of confessional, or Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s ecocritical adaptations of the haibun, or Jenny Boully’s brilliantly poetic and footnoted prose pieces written in between the lines and margins and thought spaces of other texts.
Above, you mention the blog you’ve kept, off and on, over the years–Running Brush–where some of your early thinking on a topic is processed in a fluid, lyric hybrid style, like this rendering of a frozen trip to the airport on New Year’s:
“Winter’s all-nighter a terrifying 2:30 a.m. joyride to the airport in lazy champagne bubbles of fizzing snow, your dashboard reading twenty-three below.
You call the blog “a zuihitsu”–can you explain how you approach writing in this format, and how you see it fitting or expanding into other work?
I called the blog a zuihitsu, which means “running brush,” because to my mind, the blog–with its polished spontaneity, its private journaling existing within the electronic sphere of public discourse, its sinuous shape in terms of being able to hold any range of writing (from poetic/lyric, to academic, to diary, to journalism, to comedy) struck me as being a postmodern type of zuihitsu or “running brush” style. For me, the frame of a blog post invited an “in-the-moment” improvisatory response, but the public nature of the blog made the writing more purposeful than, say, private journaling or freewriting. It’s so interesting that you mention Running Brush because I feel that it was with the blog, through blogging, that I learned how to write creative non-fiction. It’s strange how sometimes writerly growth is about learning when, where, and how to give oneself permission. Because I was “just blogging” it allowed me to instinctively develop and practice the fluid, lyric hybrid style in which I typically write my non-fiction prose. The blog posts weren’t, to my mind, ever purely poems, but they were, at the time, more poetic than my sense of what constituted a standard essay. And it was this in-between, you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter space that fit and felt right to me. This ultimately became the space in which I wrote the entirety of my fourth book, Dandarians, and some of the prose poems and lyric flash essays that made up Dandarians took shape and emerged from the blogging that I was doing during that time period.
Dandarians represents a big break in style for you in your published books -- not so much for those following your blog posts and editor’s essays, but a significant shift from your poems. Or, rather, not a break from your polymath thinking-on-the-page style which incorporates linguistics and wordplay, as well as feminist/gender/queer/cultural/postcolonial theory, but in the directness with which you treat intimate trauma and the forms the text inhabits–prose poems, letters/epistles, lyric essays, haibun, etc. Were these prose forms part of the (dis)rupture represented in the content? Can you talk about how you selected prose forms to pair with particular content?
During the latter part of writing On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, I began to feel somewhat constricted by the intensely lyric, intensely descriptive style of poetry I was writing. It felt like I was replicating my own too-familiar moves in the aesthetic vein I was mining, and so I wanted to find different ways of making poems, as well as explore different processes as paths into those poems. Because the poems I’d been writing were starting to feel a little bit tightly-buttoned to me, a little bit too contained, a bit too beholden to their own investment in poetry with a capital “P,” I wanted to explore something looser, more instinctive/intuitive, with more breathing room. The kind of writing I’d been doing on my blog seemed to align with this desire, this vision. I also–after decades of slow and difficult processing--knew that I finally wanted to write fully and unflinchingly about intimate/familial trauma, and the space of a lineated poem felt somehow too pat/too neat/too deliberately aestheticized a form for me to address what I wanted/needed to address. Being able to work within the spaciousness of a prose poem/lyric essay gave me room to reflect, process, juxtapose, and braid (all techniques of essays) in ways that allowed me to more effectively explore the nuance and complexity of trauma, I felt.
I’ve taught Dandarians to grad students a few times– in poetry, nonfiction, and hybrid workshops. One question I’ve been asked is, was this manuscript submitted to Milkweed Press as poetry? Whose decision was it to publish this book as a collection of poems?
I submitted Dandarians to the Lindquist & Vennum poetry prize, for which it was a finalist, and Milkweed subsequently offered me a publication contract. So I suppose it was my decision, although I’ve always considered Dandarians to be a hybrid work. My rationale for submitting the manuscript as poetry honestly had a lot to do with my familiarity with poetry venues, and complete lack of familiarity with the processes and venues for submitting prose. This was 2012, too, and flash lyric was, at least to my mind, still emerging as a viable creative nonfiction form.
In an interview with Matthew Thorburn for Ploughshares, you say that you originally wrote some of the poems for On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year as prose poems, then laboriously retrofitted them into lineated forms. Yet when you began by writing Dandarians in hybrid form, “instead of attempting to rework/force the pieces into the music of the line,” you attempted “to make music within the wraparound prose lines and really explore the challenges of finding musicality without the regular breaths of line breaks.” Could you explain, what were your strategies for making/finding music within your prose? and/or what discoveries did you make in this process?
There’s something very sinuous about the wraparound prose line, in contrast to lineated forms, and when you’re working with line breaks, I feel as if the breaks determine so much of how the music of the poem unfolds, and in this sense, ends up limiting some of the sonic possibilities to considerations based on where and how the line breaks fall. The wraparound prose lines, on the other hand, are free to expand and contract according to their own rhythms. I felt much freer to create music through varying length of sentences–contrasting long rolling sentences with crisp one- or two- or three-word sentence fragments, for example. Internal rhyme becomes much more supple and organic, I feel, when it’s uncoupled from the metronome of line breaks. And of course, I was able to use white space in a way that created breath and emphasis, but with less formality, to my mind, than stanza breaks.
I’m glad you brought up white space! I wanted to ask you to talk a bit more about your use of white space. In your lyric prose, it’s not unrelated to poetry, but it also seems like you’re using it to achieve different effects: blanks, erasures, absences, breakages, things not communicated (emails, abuse, misreadings). Could you expand on your use of white space in prose, and how you see it operating differently than in poetry? Or if it’s not different to you at all?
Yes! While some of the use of white space in my lyric prose has some relationship to the ways in which I use white space or stanza breaks in poetry (i.e., formal structure/architecture, creating a larger rhythm/music for the text as a whole), I think that because it’s lyric prose, the white space, or at least the ways in which I’m conceptualizing and using white space, tend to also function in more thematic ways: spaces in which to articulate the unsayable; ways of underscoring what has been broken, defaced, or erased; a means of representing absence that has become palpable.
Beyond white space, another motif in your work of things that are there and yet are invisible until made visible (often by breaking) is your use of screens, surfaces, veils: computer and movie screens, dreams, even language. I’m thinking of “Spillover,” where you ask, “Is this brokenness a broken thing or a thing breaking open to let something else in?” Or where you grimly assert in “Dee Aster,” “Ours is a house of slippery signifiers and incongruities.” How do you break open a piece of writing on the page to make it, its contents, or its surfaces visible to the reader?
I think that in Dandarians, especially, white space–along with the motifs of screens, surfaces, veils, dreams, etc.–became a way of underscoring the ways in which everything is always/already mediated through language, as well as the slipperiness, or arbitrariness, of these mediations. We live in a time and culture of surfaces that are ubiquitous to the point of transparency, and I think that one of the ways for me to break open a piece of writing on the page to make its contents more palpable to the reader is to draw attention to the materiality of these surfaces, these mediations. And so yes, while mediations can function as conduits, they can just as easily be diaphanously filmy, obscurely foggy, or even downright opaque. This book was one where I was thinking so much about communication and miscommunication, the urge to communicate as a fierce type of longing, or desire, as well as the paradoxes of semiology.
One final question: in this present moment, and given the relevance to your writing of in-betweeness and the language of (im)migration, what do you make of the term(s) (both separately and together) “undocumented alien”?
I think it’s a horrific term that–in the way of such terms–simultaneously minimizes, legitimizes, and obscures violences, while also inciting and inviting violence. On the one hand, “undocumented” provides the institutionalized, systemically oppressive, and legitimizing pole–which suggests that this is a “rational” legal issue involving lack of “appropriate” paperwork. This is also the obscuring, euphemistic term that attempts to slap a Bandaid of “civility” or “order” over crimes against humanity. (Consider the obscene historical violences of the Ahnenpass (“ancestor pass”) required by the Third Reich to determine Aryan ancestry alongside the establishment of the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany.)
Aliens is the part of the term that incites and invites violence–stirring up irrational fears of the “Other” as violent, dangerous, and inhuman. (Consider the term “enemy aliens,” which was applied to Japanese American citizens who were interned during WWII, for example, or the cliched trope of aliens as vicious and monstrous space creatures who’ve come to invade and colonize the earth.) It’s a classic term of Evil Empire, I think! And funny, too, because someone once told me, to my face, that they were rooting for one of the other (white, male, cis/het) applicants to be appointed as the South Dakota Poet Laureate because my poetry was “absolutely alien” to him. That was the term he used. “Absolutely alien.” The moment lingers in my memory as one of innumerable, small, tedious violences that I suspect any person who exists on or within the margins is all too familiar with, but in retrospect? My hybrid-loving, Dandarian, crash-landing astronaut bride self has decided to reappropriate it as a compliment!
How infuriating! But I love your response. What a gorgeous way to end. Thank you for this conversation!
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and for Poetry City. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.
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