Out now: To love an artist, Essay Press
Forthcoming: The only name we can call it now is not its only name, Counterpath Press, January 2023
Beginnings: What prompted this book? What were you thinking about, how is it the same or different from previous work? How long did you work on it, how did the pandemic affect the process of writing it?
VALERIE HSIUNG: A bat flying out of a cave in broad daylight, To love an artist arrived with bristles, after the first bile-ful iteration of The only name we can call it now is not its only name (Forthcoming with Counterpath January 2023) was expectorated.
The only name... is a book I’ve described as coming through a crisis of silence in my life. I’ve had two crises of silence in my life. The first was a time when I first named what I was doing, what I am doing, to be poetry. When I first used that word. More than a decade later, The only name... was the second. These two sisters are books. In the way that sisters come from the same source yet are often pitted as conspirator-challengers against each other too.
The only name... feels like a half-conscious slow dive into a very deep cave. To love an artist feels like you’re zooming away sometimes at light speed from the earth. It was more conscious from the beginning, something given to me by The only name. I remember very much feeling that I’d come up for air after The only name and felt this need to devour, to levitate, after such hypogeality, to see the world, to disappear in the world, as if going underground somehow made me lose that, and also maybe named more than was safe.
What actually came about, what I didn’t realize from the beginning, was that I was seeing if the history and the science of the world as told through the portal of the self could face up against the history and the science of the self as told through the portal of the world.
All writing is self-centered, in the way all community is self-centered. I think with To love an artist there is a generating motion of casting far and wide, beyond, only to be brought back again. The only name was forced constriction from the very beginning, there was a nearness, an immediacy, a concentration, even if we went further and further away from the present.
There’s a sense to me that the pieces in To love an artist feel more object-like, but object-like in a way that is bound for failure, like someone’s putting together pieces of a tile, to try to put something back together, when what is whole is something floating about the tile and made of plasma. The only name is more of a malleable, meltable metal, like thallium, something you’re not supposed to have access to, something that would be bad to be caught with.
Both works were mostly what they are today before the pandemic though there is a lot of plague talk in To love an artist. I think the pandemic has made me, us, shed our skins even faster. It’s impossible for whole masses of people to live under the illusion of stability. The evidence of this appears in the final revisions of these books. Relating to history, to science, to family history as world history, to bodily history as science.
What was your favorite thing about writing it? What gave you the most satisfaction, what was energizing or enlivening about it?
VH: The tunneling and then the channeling. Letting myself give in to the field of energy and the magnet. Always. The only name... was a tunneling through to an original voice, a reconnecting with an original voice that I had lost. In this way it is a practice of listening and softening and opening myself to something seedier that I also had to be reconnected with.
To love an artist almost feels like a challenge to the singularity of an original voice by channeling other imagined voices and performing biomimicry. In The only name..., whole sections of the text feel like they are listening as they speak, or, they are only speaking because they are listening to something that’s telling them what will be spoken. With To love an artist, that underground voice that speaks to the speaker comes through here and there but the trail is different. What was being propelled and probed wanted to be different even if it never is.
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?
VH: The whole middle section, which becomes sparser and more airy in To love an artist. There’s a breakdown that happens. It feels clumsy at times. And recognizing the clumsiness of it made me feel clumsy. I chose to keep it for all of the reasons above that made me uncertain. Because it was time to comb my hair and see how much hair I was losing.
Who the prophet is in The only name… Because otherwise I would stop writing– if I didn’t have to go around the side.
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?
VH: There is something from the books that I want to share, something that is not clearly legible yet that is more either of the books than the books themselves. Something that came about in my creation of a ceremony to re-enter the books, a ceremony that would allow me to re-enter the books and come out intact (or mostly) before the books sealed me within them forever.
But I can’t share that now.
Can you share a few other art forms / works / books / experiences 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?
VH: My family’s history (of war, exile and migration). Chronic illness, my endocrinology. Trauma. The land. The scorpion I killed. Garbo. Appalachian folk. Taiwanese karaoke bars. The betel nut girls of Taiwan. The Bible. Lazy Susans. The way my mother read the lines on my palms. The way my mother performed moxibuston on me when I was sick. The crumbling house in the military village my mother grew up in, the way the walls peeled, the way the staircase was unsound, sleeping several people to a room on the floor. The drive between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Fennel seeds. The art of my friends. The way this question is impossible.
VALERIE HSIUNG is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, and the author of several poetry and hybrid writing collections, including The only name we can call it now is not its only name (Counterpath , January 2023), To love an artist (Essay Press, July 2022), selected by Renee Gladman for the 2021 Essay Press Book Prize, outside voices, please (CSU), selected for the 2019 CSU Open Book Prize. Her writing has appeared in print (The Believer, Chicago Review, Black Sun Lit), in flesh (Treefort Music Festival, Common Area Maintenance, The Poetry Project), in sound waves (Montez Press Radio, Hyle Greece), and other forms of particulate matter. Born in the Year of the Earth Snake and raised by Chinese-Taiwanese immigrants in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the fall she will begin teaching in Boulder, Colorado, as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Poetics at Naropa.