Imperium, Carcanet Press, 2022
Beginnings: How did Imperium come about? To what extent is it a departure from previous work? Did the pandemic affect the process of writing it?
JAY GAO: In many ways Imperium is similar to my previous work in that it is an echo, a response, a trace, a reflection of a narrative that has already been laid out.
My books have broadly worked with the mythic: St George and the Dragon; The Descent of Inanna; the I Ching; and now, The Odyssey. (My next book is inspired by Norse mythology and medieval manuscripts...) Where does this intense bias to write back come from? I cannot help but take everything in.
I often find my imagination completely saturated by the sticky architecture of language and storytelling. I love how Cecilia Vicuña describes her work as always “responding to a sign not imposing a mark.” My work often begins from a place of refractory transcreation; I am interested in the questions that propel response: what are the consequences, the ethics of responding?
The interest in mythology began in childhood, during afternoons poring over library books. All my years between then and now seem to be a slow digestion of that vocabulary of the mythical, the exaggerated, the idealised, the enchanted. [Walter] Benjamin would name these texts as documents of barbarism. I don’t disagree. The more I make my way in this world, the more those documents become transmitted through me. How can I find ways of reckoning with their barbarism? The language I thought I owned seemed borrowed, stolen, nostalgic. Everything I borrow in the act of writing a poem I have to give back, in some way, after it is written. Imperium was a way of moving from a poetics of the hero towards the monster. The monster whose afterlife is governed by language. In a place where everything is possible.
What was your favorite thing about writing it? What gave you the most satisfaction, what was energizing or enlivening about it?
JG: Honestly, my favourite thing about writing Imperium was knowing that I would finish it, that — within the immediacy of the present — I would be “done” in a really material way with the thinking, the rehearsing, that site-specific imaginative dreaming I had spent a few years carving out. This happens after every project of mine. I write in order to gain the necessary momentum to slingshot me into another different creative dimension. I thought I would need more time after finishing Imperium before writing again, but that wasn’t true. You finish the writing and you think to yourself, how on earth will I be able to do that again. But then you realise, terribly, that the absence of writing, like a blindspot, is un-livable. You rush to fill it, to fill in that void. I rushed to explore a space I did not anticipate Imperium would even generate. No, maybe not a space, but a tear. A tear in the fabric.
I love how writing gives me permission. Writing Imperium gave me the permission to desire a different poetics and style that could only exist after the completion of the book. And I say this not to be pessimistic or negative about the book at all; crucially, everything I write comes with a promise of myself towards the future. A promise of a horizon of not just more writing, but of different writing. In the wake of myself. The end of the project galvanised me. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. Maybe like the sudden switching between two sources of energy within the mind. To move from coal to wind. From oil to solar. How can I refuse that joy of renewal?
Was there a section or poem or part of the book that you felt doubtful about including? What made it so? How did you come to the decision you did?
JG: Quite a few instances. I was unsure about splitting the long poem “Seeing Man” into two parts, situated quite apart from each other. The first part ends with the line ‘I recalled a sentence from Henry James I copied down on the plane.’ And the sentence by James — ‘You have the imagination of disaster and see life indeed as ferocious and sinister’ — does not appear until 50 pages later. The sudden break occurs so artificially. Why did I do that?
Perhaps that was the entire point, to question the limit of a poem about human nature. I was also unsure about how much space those 14-page Body Sonnet sequences took up: each fragment has its own page, which felt nearly wasteful for a debut book of poetry. Originally, I had planned for there to be three but settled on two sequences in the end. I think, looking back, I would have made a case for including them all. They feel like the triumvirate pillars that buttress the long heart of the book, the poem “Nobody.” I guess I felt that I needed to have some more legible poems to anchor those fragmented sequences, but now I really feel quite differently about the entire thing. Maybe if I were to ever do an Imperium Redux...
What are some lines, phrases or images from the book that stay with you, either because they capture something that feels very true, or they came to you in a way that felt whole and generative, or some other reason?
JG: I quite like some of the questions in Imperium: “Hero what were your wanderings about” — which I think is a warping of a line by Derek Walcott. Or maybe the last few lines of the title poem, the penultimate poem: “Do you understand / Why we think his life may be extinct / Do you.”
Or how in the poem “Agent Orange,” the ending takes a sudden swerve, a break, into some lines from Celan. Why go there? Something had to happen in that moment, that frustrating moment of not adequately being able to get close, at all, towards a narrative of violence, of barbarism, with the lyric voice. The lyric as defeat. As a collapsed ship. That break is rather ugly but it feels true to have made it there.
Every image that involves a mosquito, of which there are quite a few, stays with me; in fact, if I could give the book a dedication, why not dedicate it to every mosquito that has and will ever bite me. These words are for you!
Or maybe those last lines from the first Body Sonnet sequence: “My heart / The sand, / the blood / in / the water? / Should be / an illusion.”
Can you share a few works that influenced you in the writing of this book? Do you think these influences will be visible to your readers? Would you like them to be?
JG: Some of the book’s philosophy, the thinking that feeds into its poiesis, was inspired by certain twentieth-century thinkers: Émile Benveniste, Eric Auerbach, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin. Some of these writers I encountered, ironically, through a graduate seminar on postcolonial theory.
Other elements of Imperium draw from a lineage of archipelagic poetics, from Caribbean writers like Éduoard Glissant or Aimé Césaire.
Then there’s a long list of poets writing in and around myth that continue to inspire me: H.D., Derek Walcott, Anne Carson, Alice Oswald, Fiona Benson, Sandeep Parmar, Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo, to name but a few.
Some of these names are more visible than others; some exist in secret easter eggs only legible to me. I had to work through this community of influence in order to write these poems. There was no other way. But whether this community needs to be visible to readers — that’s really a question about what happens to ghosts after their haunting, and I don’t have an answer for that.