Kimiko Hahn is the author of ten books of poems. Her most recent, published in March by W. W. Norton, is Foreign Bodies.
Earlier works include Brain Fever (2014), and Toxic Flora (2010), both collections prompted by science; The Narrow Road to the Interior (2006) a collection that takes its title from Basho’s famous poetic journal; The Unbearable Heart (1996), which received an American Book Award; Earshot (1992), which was awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and an Association of Asian American Studies Literature Award. She is a distinguished professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Queens College, The City University of New York. She lives in New York City.
More about her latest book, Foreign Bodies, follows the interview.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Kimiko Hahn: The question invites me to mull over the word distraction—that is, to trust distraction and to distrust focus and whatever takes us away from the mundane. (Though it’s true that things like email are pathetic distractions.) I think of distraction—as in being pulled in different directions—as a tool for the poet to write discursively. I think of that style as potentially fulfilling. But I wonder why can’t wandering be travel? Also, in this context, fulfillment sounds a bit grandiose. (Apparently Belloc walked much of the way the from the Midwest to California while courting his wife. Was that never wandering? was it all traveling?) I think I fall more on the side of Emily Dickinson and her practice of staying. I might be closer to: We wander for distractions and stay for fulfillment.
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Hahn: Lizards and bugs.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for you creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Hahn: My cubby would be a space the size of fourteen lines. The contents might be a list. It might look like prose. But small, for compression and circulation.
I do enjoy having “unlimited” space for long pieces or short pieces that are sectioned. But lately, I feel safer in short spaces. And, as of this date (April 3, 2020), sequestering seems to imitate form.
But I imagine you are looking for a concrete answer. I can pretty much work anywhere, anytime. I learned this from a book I read in my early twenties: in Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande (1934) trains one to “tap the unconscious directly.” It’s oddly practical.
My cubby would be a space the size of fourteen lines.Kimiko Hahn
Cagibi: The poems in Brain Fever circle neuroscience and also draw from such varied subjects as Japanese culture, how memory works, how time passes, and the roles of wife, mother, and daughter, and more. What has this approach of interweaving made manifest for you—what are the possibilities for a poet at intersections like these?
Hahn: Letting go of my material feels a necessary part of my process. I don’t want to know where I’m going—I mean, why go if you know where you are going to be led? Interweaving is part of my ruminating. Drifting. Getting to raw material. After a rough draft, one question is how to maintain that sense of, say, drift, without meaningless babble.
I should return to Dorothea Brande to describe what I mean and why: “The unconscious is shy, elusive, and unwieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it. The conscious mind is meddlesome, opinionated, and arrogant, but it can be made subservient to the inborn talent through training.”
Cagibi: Your tenth collection, Foreign Bodies, was published in March and was inspired by objects in a medical museum in Philadelphia. Could you talk about how you discovered the museum, and how the experience brought you to these poems?
Hahn: I think most people are fascinated by the strange and offbeat. I love natural history museums and cabinets of curiosity (early manifestations of museums). Dr. Jackson’s drawers of 2,000 objects that he removed from children’s upper airways—these possess a primitive, even uncanny, quality. I didn’t have to research very far to find a remarkably interesting biography by Mary Cappello, Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them. During the time I was trying to figure out how to write about him and his objects, my father was dying and my sister and I were eventually left with his house filled with hoarding of both art objects and mundane detritus. I found myself writing about objects and, in effect, how they possess us. By extension—consumer consumption. Capitalism.
Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?
Hahn: I take my writing routine with me, as if a suitcase, and since I often write about what is in front of me (and that could be a biography about a laryngologist), traveling can give way to new images: whether at a cafe on the Amalfi Coast or on a train after visiting a Japanese temple.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Hahn: I don’t need an excuse to write because writing is a routine. (When I had small children, I used to joke that teaching and housekeeping interfered with writing, not the opposite. My then-husband was a good child-raising partner.) Travel is a special enjoyment that I have the good fortune to afford (even or especially when I am paid to attend). Last January, I read in Salt Lake City and I felt very fortunate for that invitation: I don’t know that I would have ever visited otherwise.
Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.
Hahn: My parents were travelers and they took us on two major trips: Rome for two years (I was an infant) and Japan in 1964 (we went around the world to and after). Recent major trips have been either to revisit (Nara and Angkor Wat) or to see sights before we’re bound to rocking chairs (Galapagos Islands). But–inspiration from a book? When I researched the poem “Alloy” (see poem below), I read interviews and biographical material on Isamu Noguchi. I would love to visit his studio (now a museum) in Japan on the island of Shikoku. I would also visit Hiroshima prefecture–where my grandparents were from. We wanted to travel to these southern areas a few years ago but it was ravaged by tropical storms.
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Hahn: As an adult, I realized that I was not comfortable in my family home. It was small and either drafty in winter or stuffy in the summer; there was very little privacy. I lived there for nearly eighteen years. I scribbled in my shared bedroom. That was not a choice.
When I got to college, I found that I wrote best in public spaces—student union, diner, library. A noisy place where I wasn’t distracted (there’s that word again!) by things that needed to get done. For an undergrad: studying for an elective test or Japanese grammar quizzes. After my children were born, I wrote in the Hungarian Pastry Shop up near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. That noisy dimness was comforting. Later, in a lesbian bar-cafe in Park Slope. It has only been in the past ten or so years that I find I can write at home, that home feels safe. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the door.
An Apostrophe for Isamu Noguchi
Is stone the opposite of dust? And if so, are we then stone before dust? And before that, some
kind of betwixt? The mush inside
a translucent chrysalis turning cellophane-clear when, of a sudden, you can see the Monarch
throbbing and scratching its way into air—
unlike a centipede that lays eggs, even curls around them with her hundred feet. You said that
living in Japan our house was filled with centipedes.
I became rather fond of them; I lost my fear. You know, when you kill one, the two halves just
Surely they played in your mind all the way to your piece “Even the Centipede,”
molded from Ibaraki clay–though you felt in a medium like clay anything can be done; and
stated, I think that’s dangerous. It’s too fluid. Too facile.
Under your instruction, I’ll find what is too fluid for me and turn my scratching away from facile
using hammer, chisel, and drill if lucky enough to come across the right quarry and ask nice
enough or pay enough
for a crew to blast out the marble–unless the material is residue from something else. Glacial
I mean, glacial moraine
from my home near the Sound where a glacier once aborted boulders onto these lean beaches.
I pick up a rock rounded and chipped in the surf, then, back home, like those who set Jizo on
boulevard altars in Kyoto,
I tie a bib around its belly then place it on our mantel. Like those women, I, too, remember my
baby unborn from betwixt and
Japanese. Japanese like those on the land where dust storms blew farm families to smithereens,
then, blew desert
through rows of barracks surrounded by barbed wire and gunner watch-towers. Even orphan
with one drop of Jap blood were seized from whatever charity for bowls of dust. And you,
Noguchi-sensei, volunteered yourself
into this incarceration limbo with the goal to build a baseball diamond, swimming pool, and
you entered Poston Internment where you knew yourself a Nisei, that is, without the rights of a
citizen: request, of course, denied.
(Not for nothing, you were despised on both sides.) And as for centipedes
I’m not so much afraid as squeamish, which is different, and I’ve never killed one by cutting it in
so I don’t know about the two alive sides. The split selves not seeing eye-to-eye, I know only too
You knew and I know differently from parents who realized alloy only from without, whereas
the coywolf, say,
realizes coyote and wolf even if the composite isn’t brought to light–
maybe light is the opposite of stone, say, lightning that cracks inside a cloud? or coral that glows
below the surface of the sea?
or the full moon that illuminates the shoji of the falling-asleep boy? I love the firefly’s
serenading signals, patterned according to kind. Kind—
something our parents did not essentially heed.
In my mind, stone, water, light, etcetera all come down to dust on a moth’s wing
that’s evolved to keep her patterns cued for a mate and to keep her blanketed in the stunning
In my mind, an alloy is ultimately practical because, as you commented, to be hybrid anticipates
You also admitted: if you only have clay on hand, then from clay even the centipede is cast.
Originally appeared in Ploughshares Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring 2019). Appears with permission. Copyright 2019 Kimiko Hahn.
If you are viewing this poem on a phone or table, to read the poem with its proper visual layout, you can open it as a PDF by clicking here: “Alloy” by Kimiko Hahn.
More About Foreign Bodies
Kimiko Hahn’s most recent book of poetry Foreign Bodies is available for purchase wherever books are sold. From the publisher:
Inspired by her encounter with Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of ingested curiosities at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection investigates the grip that seemingly insignificant objects exert on our lives. Itself a cabinet of curiosities, the collection provokes the same surprise, wonder, and pangs of recognition Hahn felt upon opening drawer after drawer of these swallowed, and retrieved, objects—a radiator key, a child’s perfect attendance pin, a mother-of-pearl button. The speaker of these moving poems sees reflections of these items in the heartbreaking detritus of her family home, and in her long-dead mother’s Japanese jewelry.
As Hahn remakes the lyric sequence in chains reminiscent of the Japanese tanka, the foreign bodies of the title expand to include the immigrant woman’s trafficked body, fossilized remains, a grandmother’s Japanese body. She explores the relationship between our innermost selves and the relics of our vanished past, making room for meditation on grief and the ephemeral nature of the material world, for the account of a nineteenth-century female fossil hunter, and for a celebration of the nautilus. Foreign Bodies investigates the power of possession, replete with Hahn’s electric originality and thrilling mastery of ever-changing forms.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.