“to return to dying between two cupped hands: A Conversation with James Fujinami Moore about indecent hours” — curated by Tiffany Troy

James Fujinami Moore’s debut collection indecent hours is published by Four Way Books in 2022. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrow Street’s 4×2, The Brooklyn Rail, Guesthouse, The Margins, the Pacifica Literary Review, and Prelude. He has been a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow, a Bread Loaf Work-Study Fellow, and the Four Way Books Fellow at the Frost Place Conference in Poetry. He received his MFA from Hunter College in 2016, and lives in Los Angeles.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem “of the future, based on the flight patterns of certain birds,” set up the collection that follows?

James Fujinami Moore: I wanted to say, first of all, thanks so much for these questions, and for reading the book so well. It was really lovely to be so clearly seen.

TT: I was reading the book, and exclaiming how this is so well-written! The poem “to the white woman who asked if I was ‘one of those musical Asian children’” explores for me the nuances of identity without pigeonholing the speaker or the different characters into one thing or another.

JFM: The world puts a lot of labels on writers, whether you want to or not, often labels of your marginalized identities. Every writer who has had that experience comes to their own reckoning and understanding of what that means. Whether it’s an Asian American writer or a queer writer or a woman writer, or a Black writer, right? There are so many ways that these labels are put upon us. I know people who have rejected them, and that’s super valid, and I know people who have embraced them, and that’s also incredibly valid.

Being an Asian-American writer is always particularly slippery because the identity of Asian-Americans in America is very slippery, interesting, and weird. There are poems in the book in which I wanted to talk about both the exhaustion of feeling pigeonholed and how tiring that pain can be, but also how about being Japanese, being Chinese, an American, etc, has informed who I am as a person and informs my every day.

It’s funny because I had written most of the book prior to the pandemic and then turned in the final drafts right around the time the pandemic started to happen. It was around the time, after the lockdown started, that hate crimes against Asian Americans, which had been rising for some time, really skyrocketed. That made some things in the work feel like they recurred unpleasantly close to home in some ways that I didn’t expect, or anticipate.

This is a roundabout way of answering your question about the first poem of the book, which also mentions an instance of anti-Asian violence, which was an acid attack in the lead up to the 2016 election. There’s a mention of the former Presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, who wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in 2020 saying “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before”, which is a sentiment a bunch of older Asian people applauded, and a bunch of younger Asian people are like, shut the fuck up.

I picked a bunch of different poems to start in various different iterations, and I ended up settling on that one because it contains within it a kind of movement that the book itself also has, which is also an unfortunate aspect of the way that I remember things. Each of the sentences loop off of the next sentence, but then mutate the further they go down and pull in other things and connect to other things. That unbroken slipperiness of the present sliding into the past sliding into the future, feels very integral to the book itself.

TT: I love that idea of slipperiness threading the past, present, and future. Could you describe the process in writing this collection?

JFM: It’s my debut collection. I had gone to MFA at Hunter College, and put together a thesis, which was my first experience of putting together a bunch of poems into the shape of a book. After that, I didn’t write for a little while, and then I did, and then I put together more collections, mostly as exercises in order, and every time it was pretty different from the previous iterations.

The process of putting the order that became this book was the first time I had looked at my work in a really long time. That started the way it usually does: by putting together all the poems that I thought was worth a damn over the past eight or nine years. I spread out all the poems on the floor and I started looking at themes, commonalities, and stuff that I didn’t know I was interested in. Like birds show up a lot. I guess I have strong feelings about birds.

I eventually settled on thinking about the book as a series of braids, with each string a series of themes and narratives focusing on personal histories and political histories, and centering around violence, notions of past violence, future violence, personal, interpersonal violence and historical violence. More than that, as an exploration of cruelty, and of desires to inflict pain.

 You learn by making. It feels like putting together a little golem of clay. Once it’s sort of well-shaped enough, it starts to move on its own. And then your job is to kind of get out of the way, and shape the things that it’s telling you to do. Once it was shaped enough, once it started to move a little, I could sort of take a step back, look at it, see what needed to be written into and what there was still a question about. From there, it was mostly shaped.

TT: Congratulations on your debut!

JFM: Thank you so much. I tried to manage mood and not have too many heavy poems one after another, and trying to put in moments of lightness, moments of humor, moments of joy or pleasure, to help guide the reader through what I know can sometimes be a little bit of a bleak landscape.

TT: How do forms inform your collection? In writing the poems, does the form come first, or do you choose a form, and then write? Or both?

JFM: I think both. I mean I’m very much a magpie formalist. Sometimes forms are useful to me in that they frustrate me enough to get me outside of my head.

The poem that’s about Manzanar, for instance, is a sestina that mutates. It’s a sestina that stops behaving like a sestina. That decay was important because the subject of the poem was one that I had been really tired of hearing about. The sestina is a form which forces you to keep using the same words over and over and over again. I liked that contradiction. I liked how unpleasant that made it to write.

There are other poems like “midnight at Banshee” (“A dead boy walks into a bar”) where I wanted a poem in the shape of a joke. (Jury is out on whether it actually ended up being funny or not.) There are poems which take cues from memes. But some of that just gets pulled in as I started writing the poem.

The penultimate poem of the book, “American myth: Kim v. Mancini,” about the boxing match, originally started out as a poem in which I was attempting to explore redactions.

The text that gets redacted is that first initial block that’s just giving the facts about what happened in the match. There had originally been a lot more redactions in the process of writing that, and that had been the idea that I was exploring. Then, at a certain point, I tried exploring an unredaction where every place I would redact words, I added them instead. That was an interesting process because the added text became the part of the poem in which in which the voice of Kim Duk-Koo’s girlfriend and the mother of his child comes through, midway through the poem. That was really interesting to me, and that was a form that emerged out of the process of writing that poem. That felt like a gift.

It is always that push and pull; sometimes you’re writing a poem, and then midway through you realize that this is a sonnet, and you need to change it around. But sometimes you’re writing a sonnet, and you’re like, actually this form isn’t that interesting for what this work is.

Form is sometimes something that gets you there, too. And a lot of the poems in this book started that way, too.

TT: Yeah, it really was so interesting listening to how like the form becomes a form of discovery sometimes.

JFM: I’ve said this before, but I was in a workshop with Mary Szybist, at Breadloaf, where I was lucky enough to be a waiter. Mary Szybist said at one point in workshop, just off the cuff, Disruption is a kind of tenderness because the normal route is dangerous. Extraordinarily brilliant. I think about that when it comes to form, and specifically when it comes to breaking form. As someone who is very interested in notions of power, where you stick with the form and where you break the form is really interesting to me, and something that I think about a lot when writing.

TT: I love that anecdote, and it’s so cool that you’re the last class of the waitstaff at Breadloaf?

JFM: Yeah, accidentally, the last waiters. There are no more after us.

TT: Returning to what you said earlier about the structure of the collection as a kind of braiding, is there anything you would like to add to the collection’s structure?

JFM: The only thing I would add would be that I like having them in multiple sections. In my envisioning of the book and thinking about the way it was constructed, I thought about it like a staircase or a spiraling maze that is taking you closer to the center of a thing. So each of the sections functioning kind of like a braid that is pulling tighter and tighter as you fall in to it.

I also liked having them in sections because that felt right to pacing in terms of the reading of it. This is a personal aesthetic and certainly by no means dictate, but I tend to write the way that I speak or attempt to write the way that I speak. I like that as an aesthetic in terms of conversationalness.

A lot of times people will always ask poets like, What kind of poetry do you write?, which is an impossible question.

The joke-but-also-true answer which I tell people is that I write really complicated bar stories. I write poems that are just like a stranger sits down next to you at a bar and starts telling you a really weird story that is pulling in a couple of references that he keeps having to digress to explain. Many of these poems are also just stories I have told in my real life to people that have been shaped into poems. I took that idea and applied it to the organization of the book. The organization of the sections is also very much where I would take a breath, where I would take a pause, where I would stand up and stretch my legs, or I would order another drink. Those are where the sections end; it’s a little intermission.

TT: I love that as well as the idea of the staircase, because each of your section has a lead into the next section, that is super long, but also evocative.

JFM: The interstitials are from Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan, which is a series of ghost stories. There’s a movie, Kwaidan, or four short ghost stories that is great. Then, I read Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan and I decided to steal little excerpts and put that before, because the book is also like ghost stories. It is about how the past comes back to haunt you.

TT: Anselm Berrigan writes about how you have two modes: a super realist mode and a fabulist mode. Do you consciously choose which mode you’re in, or is it like you telling a bar story?

JFM: Yeah, I don’t. Ultimately the real world is kind of surreal anyways. I don’t think about the mode so much as I think about what feels the most true to the poem in the moment, and what feels most true to telling the story.

A stereotype of poets that I don’t believe is true is that we’re always trying to complicate or make things obscure. At least for my part, and for the part of all of the poets that I admire and love, we’re not trying to make things more obscure. We’re trying to tell the most honest depiction of a feeling in the most straightforward words as possible. It’s just sometimes that feeling is itself obscure, or sometimes the facts are unknown, or sometimes, the only way to get at that is fragmentary, brief, and nonlinear in recall.

There are moments like seeing a man across the world kill his child that feels surreal, and would feel nightmarish and fabulist, not in the good sense, but in the absurd and the horrifying kind of sense, and are yet real. And as real or more real than watching the cartoon of a dragon coming out of a koi. The real world is surreal enough to me that it’s not me reaching for two different brushes; it’s always the same brush.

TT: What do you wish for your readers to feel or see through your poems?

JFM: Oh, gosh! The instinctual answer is, of course, that I never want to dictate anyone else’s experience. But of course that’s the very boring answer that every artist gives.

I would hope that through reading my work, someone would feel a little bit of understanding, a little bit of acknowledgment, of familiarity. To reframe things which are ugly, or brutish or cruel, and show them both honestly but also compassionately, would be something that is a goal of mine as a writer. To be both an accurate chronicler of the world without being a heartless one. I would hope that the book in general appropriately acknowledges the speakers, and by extension my participation in many of the things which are not good that happen within the worlds of the poems, and then by extension, that my reader would also feel included and implicated, and also acknowledged through that.

TT: I felt first, your bar poems are definitely super funny. Second, I definitely felt acknowledged and implicated. I felt the poet’s voice come through.

Do you have any closing thoughts that you want to share?

JFM: I am always surprised at how present history feels. I recently heard in a podcast that Robert E. Lee’s father was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Only one generation had passed from the American Revolution to the Civil War. We tend to think of these events as so far apart and in some ways disconnected, and yet history is a completely unbroken chain.

In researching this book and thinking about a lot of the events in the book, I had been shocked to learn how close some of them were. I was talking to my mother, who had emigrated to America. She had come over in 1960 on a boat from Japan and stopped over in Hawaii for refueling, as many Japanese immigrants did. I was talking to her about it, and then unrelatedly, I was looking up some history, and I realized, my mother stopped over in Hawai’i a year after it had become a U.S. state. I had grown up in a world that had always had fifty States, and yet that has not been true in the lifetime of people who I know, in the lifetime of people who are still alive today.

There are two things that I take away from that, one of which is that the legacies of violence are always a lot closer than you think they are, and a lot more present in the lives of, especially the people who they have affected than you think they are. The other thing I take away from that which is maybe more hopeful is that the systems of power which have entrenched themselves, and which seem impossible to overcome, are also a lot younger and newer and less overwhelming than you might think they are as well.

I would want to leave people with that thought, that history is so close to us that is both terrifying but also hopeful sometimes.

TT: That connects well to “American myth: The Three Identical Grandfathers.” In that poem, the grandfathers are interconnected vis-à-vis the speaker. In your Notes you also mention how the loyalty of the 442nd Infantry Unit was one key factor to Hawaii’s admission as the 50th state.

JFM: Yeah, absolutely. Hawai’i is itself an odd microcosm of America’s attitudes of power. On the one hand you have indigenous folks whose state was illegally annexed, and then the strange place of Japanese Americans within that, as both colonizers and people of color. And then of course the hordes of tourists every year. It speaks to that strange place that Asian-Americans occupy in the racial conception of America as both above and below, as “model minority” but also permanent outsiders, that I think is strange to reckon with.

TT: Yes, like “very talented musical child,” for instance.

JFM: Ultimately, a lot of my work is about attempting to reconcile things which I find impossible to reconcile, things that are both ideas that feel like they can only be held in opposition to each other and remain without resolution. Someone who is a war criminal who has cruelty done to them, right? Or people who are parents or people who are friends or lovers who are cruel to each other, but out of a kind of desire for love, or a desire for touch. Or men who are in a boxing match, who are in some ways closer than brothers. And then in some ways, are also violent and opposing enemies. Holding these contradictions in my mind makes that fork-in-a-garbage-disposal noise in my brain. And sometimes that’s the noise of me writing a poem.