VI KHI NAO: In preparation for this conversation, I almost made bánh xèo. But, alas, I have been very un-culinary. How is your appetite lately, Jessica? Your poetry collection enters the world in March. Will you have a book launch?
JESSICA Q STARK: I think of us making bánh xèo together often! How intimate Vietnamese food is! So much wrapping and dipping and gesture. My appetite for launches for this book, as well, is insatiable. I love many parts of the communities that I am a part of where I live in Durham, North Carolina and have a few events lined up in the next few months around here in celebration of the book’s relationship to those communities. None of them are formal launches and all of them are formal launches. Plans for birth and rebirth and rebirth. Perhaps I am staying in motion to survive.
VKN: Can you talk about the various parts of the communities that you love? What about it that you love? And, what other/type of communities do you wish to be in conversation with through this launch(es)? Or expand your conversation with?
JQS: I moved to Durham almost seven years ago most immediately from Brooklyn, New York, where I spent most of my time running to the subway and being late to work. Durham was a welcome change, financially speaking, and also a necessary change for meeting a number of creators, poets, artists, other writers. The smaller scale of the area here leaves room for genuine communing and collaboration. I think this area also invites a lot of audiences for poetry that also aren’t exclusively made up of other poets, which is nice. The major themes of Savage Pageant focus on spectacle—who or what is made a spectacle in history, who gets to call what a spectacle, who is a spectator and what are their repercussions. As I launch the book, I want to think about the myriad of spaces that host these problems, and I want to give thanks to the poets and creative rabble-rousers—dancers, editors, other grad students, event-space innovators, bar owners—from this area that have supported me in a million tiny and important ways leading up to the writing and publication of this book.
VKN: Do you miss New York? Do you wish to return one day to live? Through what lens of existence do you wish to see yourself or others to see you? As a spectator or as a spectacle? The title of your collection is comprehensive and seems to embody this duality: Savage Pageant. Both words encompassing the spectacled spectator.
JQS: The title came to me after studying the complicated history of pageantry and feminism. I wanted to examine the tension around historical storytelling as a form of pageantry in reducing complicated facts for public display and easier consumption. Stories about street signs, ourselves, our nation. Stories about pregnancy and birth. In contrast to presenting history as linear and uncomplicated, Savage Pageant emphasizes unruliness, fugitivity, and wildness that are never fully contained in a still image or a linear narrative. “Savage” also, of course, refers to the earliest accounts of “otherness” by European explorers, in an effort to contain, subjugate, and excuse their own fearful misunderstandings of “new worlds.” In my mind, Savage Pageant is also a good way to describe the history of the United States and its symptomatic citizens—from the micro-narrative to macro-histories of place and violence; its real “savageness” lies in the elaborate forms of pageantry that (attempt to) manipulate or destroy evidence of violence, racism, ecological mistakes, and national shame. I also want to point to “page” in the word “pageant.” The writing in this book, or any for that matter, inevitably enacts its own forms of unintentional violence and reductions of history and hopefully, a simultaneous break in the tide of rote timeline. I am both a spectator and of course, a deep form of spectacle. Aren’t all poets? I do not miss New York.
VKN: Your poem on page 95 with the title, “Mass Psychogenic Illness” opened with “And another thing: the 60s / were a great year for mass hysteria.” (Also, I want to take this time out to acknowledge how pseudo-elliptical your rhetorical device of phrasing “another thing” to unfasten this poem and how much I love this gesture—to give the illusion of pre-conversation. As if to suggest to your readers that a conversation between you and world has already taken place. And, this is familiar territory. And, hysteria is anything but familiar territory). There is humor and audience awareness in it which I love and appreciate. Hysteria or your fascination with it seems to be one of the few significant centers of your collection, what is the best time in one’s life to be hysterical besides the 60s? Before one gives birth? After? Twenty years later?
JQS: When I was researching for this book, I was becoming a bit obsessed with episodes of psychogenic illness or “mass hysteria” in history that have occurred throughout the world. Long bouts of people who can’t stop laughing—to the point of passing out or vomiting or pain. Dancing epidemics. Many men who believed temporarily that they had all lost their penises. People don’t know what causes these bouts, but some research has pointed to a mixture of psychologically distressing, social constraints and environmental factors (e.g. proximity of those affected to nuclear power plants, the quality of water). In my mind, this combination of possible causes had so much to do with the history I write about in this book. And of course, how could one not diagnose madness with more madness? Yet, I think to assume that we are not all completely hysterical at all times is ambitious. Or at least, those that might be paying attention to our bodies and our minds and its responses to knowledge that we bury. That last chapter of the book, “The Illness,” takes up specifically the messiness of diagnosing accumulative symptoms of repressed violence. Of unwashed soil and its seepages. I’m also interested in laughter and humor for their ability to upset. Laughter serves as such an impulse of reprieve or joy, but it’s also so instinctive and can be upsetting or threatening when delivered in response to certain moments. Other times, laughter feels symptomatic of our inability to contain history—our own or of all time. Of what we’ve done, so to speak. I think now is the best moment to be hysterical. Is anyone awake? How could one not be?
VKN: I really love the cover of your book. It’s an ideal match for its interior contents. Did the cover enter the world first? Or its contents? How did you find it? Were their other covers you were considering for it?
JQS: Thank you! The cover had a long journey. I found the image of the tapir first while I was perusing public domain images that are available online through The British Library. I often adapt these images for the covers of my ongoing poetry zine INNANET. I came across it and immediately wanted it on the cover of Savage Pageant for a number of reasons. The caption dates the illustration to 1816 as a ledger for a tapir that was sent between countries for matters of diplomacy. Before writing the book, I was interested in looking at the strange ways that humans have worked out their absurdities through the trading, showing, and degradation of animals. Especially exotic animals. Someone told me a rumor that in Thai folklore, tapirs were also considered the product of all the “leftover parts” of other animals, which carried a strong resonance in terms of the patchwork I’m doing in Savage Pageant. Fitting pieces together that compose presumably unrelated events. As well, to me, a tapir just looks it resembles the awkwardness of the pregnant body. The underlying rootwork in the book was trying to figure out how to dwell with the physicality of existing as a pregnant body, the awkwardness and dark humor of bringing another human into this sometimes doomed-feeling world. Once I had the tapir in my mind, I couldn’t bear the cover to be without it. That being said, there were many versions of the cover that led up to this one. Some with tapirs, some not. In the last moments, I let my two-year-old son pick the final version. I wrote most of this book while I was pregnant with him and it feels like very much his book as well. Birds, LLC and Chris Tonelli were very patient with my particularities. Zoe Norvell, a fantastic designer, did the final version of the interiors and the cover. She did my good friend Lauren Hunter’s book cover for Human Achievements as well as the cover for Chase Berggrun’s Red. She has a fantastic eye.
VKN: Your son has amazing taste! I assume he takes up after his mother. Savage Pageant is quite polyvocal, meaning the work doesn’t seem to exist solely on a linguistic level, but also artistic, comedic, circus-performance space. Your chapbook, The Liminal Parade, and mini-chaplets seem to also exist in this polyvocal plane. I love flipping through your book, the physical version,—it was difficult to do it digitally, and seeing the motion of your words and images move like a film. My finger seems to like to land on page 105, in which you drew a performer or Abraham Lincoln wearing cowboy boots, or an elephant trainer presses his right hand on the elephant’s behind as if to nudge it forward or to use its surface to contemplate the coeval condition of human existence, but I love its compact minimal composition—that in a few simple gestures you were able to convey so much, which I also see in your poems as well. While your drawings are more narrative, and your poems are more experimental—the two when they coexist add historical and aesthetical layers to your already sophisticated collection. Have you always preferred your poetic form to be this way? Or was it an accumulative form that is born from being exploratory and open?
JQS: I have always been attracted to the comics form and poetry and the way that they can speak to one another. I like that often the more minimal an illustration is, the more gestural it can become. This book was so much about looking at an archive of history and images through my own eyes, with my particular body at that moment, I couldn’t help but want to illustrate parts as my own subjective line handling history. I have, for better or for worse, always leaned towards poetic forms that are messy and that reach a bit out of frame or that mince genres. More than one reader of the manuscript urged that I take out the illustrations, but I couldn’t bear it. My interest in hybrid forms and hybridity relate, in a lot of respects, to my own personal hybridities: of being mixed race (my mother is Vietnamese, and my father is white), of existing neither fully here nor there. There is something a bit monstrous in mixing forms that I find provoking in thinking about concepts or parts of history that are too often thought of as monolithic, settled, and preserved. Hybrid reading also relates so heavily to how most people read on a daily basis. Checking e-mails while scrolling past offensive advertisements, clickbait, a little image of smiling child. I’m fascinated in recreating another version of this. Of this messiness. People are messy. History is messy. I am messy. I would need to write a messy text.
VKN: In general, I have noticed that mixed race Vietnamese writers feel compelled by the influences of mass media to include the Vietnam War or its consequences in their work to elevate or guarantee its success. I love how you just did your own thing, which is in my eyes, one of the greatest successes of all. I know you have been working on another collection about Madame Nhu, the controversial wife of Ngô Đình Nhu, who was the brother and chief advisor to President Ngô Đình Diệm. Though I get the impression that you are more drawn to history than to superficial cultural or racial persuasions. What is your definition of success? And, what do you think is an ideal life for a poet? And, are you leading such a life?
JQS: I do have a flinching feeling towards the marketability of certain parts of diasporic experience. What happens when we eat pain? Perhaps worse: place it on a pretty plate. Of course, there are the complexities of spectacle involved here as well. And material stakes that I don’t dismiss. I would also like to eat. And yes, I am writing a manuscript, called Buffalo Girl, that involves some folklore about Madame Nhu and about a very specific story about my mother when she was a younger woman. I am interested in thinking about the survival of Vietnamese women and some of the monstrosities that survivalism breeds in this world. And what is sacrificed. And how to manage monsters when you, as well, have blood on the shelf. I feel like Savage Pageant was about the soil that I grew up on in Southern California and now I am thinking about the body that housed me before I was born. My mother and what I inherited from those nine months. I think I have avoided writing directly about my Vietnamese heritage for a number of reasons. I don’t feel like I own it and I am not completely fluent in it, in more ways than one. So it’s taken me a long time to arrive in writing about the incoherencies of what composes a body that is caught between countries—namely, mine. But also, my mother’s, who immigrated to the United States when she was 25. And the person she became a little bit before that move and a little bit after. I am interested in woe, as woe is a part of this existence. But I am more interested in thinking about the fierceness, the terrible beauty involved with being caught between cultures. A lot of this probably does not satisfy conventional ideas of success. I do not think I lead an ideal life for a poet and I’m not sure that there is one at this moment, unfortunately, and there hasn’t been one for a long time. I write mostly in little corners and stolen time, after all. Being a poet often necessitates its own forms of savage pageantry, don’t you think? Did you know Madame Nhu could not write in Vietnamese for a very long time? She was raised into French.
VKN: I did not know that. How fascinating. Also, when you inform people that you are Vietnamese, do they ever ask you if you speak fluently in French? I used to get that all the time. Flinching feeling? Could you expound?
JQS: I have not! Wow! I think though people mostly read me as white, so if I say I’m Vietnamese they look mostly confused.
VKN: How do you respond to their confusion? Vietnam had 1,000 years of Chinese domination, 100 years of French supremacy (there is a famous Vietnamese Trịnh Công Sơn song “Gia Tài Của Mẹ” sang so beautifully by Khánh Ly that teaches us Vietnamese of our history with oppression: you can listen to the song here:
… I was surprised people don’t ask if I speak fluently in Chinese – since China occupied Vietnam 10 folds that of the West).
JQS: Wow… the tenacity of French superimposition! I can’t deny that it’s irritating, even if it’s not perhaps malicious by intent. The worst is when (white) people try to connect in reductive ways, usually right after I’ve “revealed” my heritage. Once, someone responded warmly that they love their nail salon technician when I mentioned that my mother is Vietnamese. They were trying to connect, but people often connect through making tidy little bundles of complicated experiences and people. I think this relates to my flinching feeling I mentioned earlier. Of course, so much of what is marketed as “Vietnamese experience” in the United States relates to the American War in Vietnam and to related forms of suffering. Or other specific images. Nail salon worker, for example. “Caricatures on living a diasporic life” sounds like a marketable Netflix serial. I mean, sure, I would not be here without the war’s occurrence, and that is a confounding fact. But, there is a potential glamorization of the aftermath of war (any war) and its consequences in art that reduces confounding facts to soundbites and pain sandwiches. A TedTalk for lucid suffering. How crass. And that crassness has a lot to do with the audience’s comfort. Art that assures the survival of pain suffered. I think “survival” is important for white viewership of Vietnamese art about war. I think that’s what bothers me. It must be heartbreaking, but altogether digestible. It must be tragic, but not too complicated or unresolved. And what is violence if never resolved? This is more of a slight against the hands holding the awards than those writing about the war. Is there enjoyment involved with eating pain? Seeing a certain kind of performance of it? A spectacle, to be sure. There must be a way to invert it. I don’t think it’s marketable though.
VKN: What is your favorite poem from Savage Pageant? Can you talk about why it is one of your favorites? And, have you read your entire collection out loud to your son? If so, how did he respond to it? Have your son eaten your Savage Pageant yet? If you were to eat it, what do you think it will taste like? Paper? Or a very skewed version of a banana?
JQS: I haven’t read the collection to my son yet—what a great idea. I think if he were to eat it, it would probably be full of meat. Which he loves. One of my favorite poems I think is the first one: “Savage Pageant: A Genealogy.” I also like all of the intermissions because they are for and about my son and the fraught stakes of bringing another human into the world and the sometimes-unbearable physicality of that act. An early press that rejected the work suggested that I take all of these poems out of the manuscript. How could I? I wrote this book feverishly against the clock of my maternity—convinced by so much nonsense that becoming a mother would take all of my time and my mind. I wrote “A Genealogy” at the very final moment of this collection before publication. It is, in many ways, a bridge to the next book, which is more about my mother, but it is also underscoring the significant, personal stakes in the soil of Savage Pageant. Here is the world I have birthed you into, child. I am sorry. I was mad. But I think there is a way out.
VKN: What an absurd suggestion! Those are some of the strongest poems of yours. This may seem non-sequitur: but, what did you do this morning? And, is it typical of your day? You have won significant award(s) for being an amazing teacher. What are the key ingredients of your awesomeness? Will you impart some important pedagogic wisdom for us? And, what is a great antidote for a student who has a terrible instructor? Is poetry a decent antidote to pain? Or does poetry make it worse?
JQS: This morning I canceled a physical therapy appointment that I set too early and I went into work. I work at a library at the moment, but for a short time. I have been writing a lot about pain. I mostly write late at night after my son goes to bed or I will write during fleeting moments throughout the day: in the parking lot, waiting in a doctor’s office. This is how I must continue to write these days, which I am finding more of a change in perspective than a burden as the mother to a young child. However, this is something I do try to impart to my students: learning how to write in various moments and places and moods or mindsets. I wish I had learned that earlier. No special ingredient beyond conjuring a deep interest in other people. I press myself to maintain my own attention to my students, on and off the page. I feel like the simple gift of momentary, deep attention these days often conjures magic, absurdity, passion, interest, suspicion, rigorous self-defense, a break. I aim to conjure these moments in my students and try to do so by first deeply attending to what they write. And certainly, how to get them to find writing as a sustainable habit in a world designed to mostly suppress creativity. I have had more terrible instructors than great instructors and am not sure I can lend the best advice, as I did not come out unscathed. Poetry has been an antidote, for sure, at times. But I do not think it is a salve and yes, sometimes it can make it worse. I was talking yesterday to a student about the word “monster.” It derives from the more obvious early definitions of a “malformed animal,” but also from the Latin monstrum, meaning “divine omen.” I think poetry is both of these things. Poets, occasionally, too.
VKN: Disney acquired 20th Century Fox for 71.3B. And, recently dropped “Fox” from its branding? What do you think of acquisition that semi-deletes 85 years of history? Do you think 20th Century will be less cunning because it’s no longer foxy or has Fox in it? I ask because of your acute poetic and visual muscularity/nod of MGM Lion in your Savage Pageant. If someone were to delete the lion in your work, would you replace it with Anonymous Tiger? Anonymous Chipmunk? Anonymous Alligator? Anonymous Dragon? Anonymous Ibex? Or Anonymous Cheetah?
JQS: What a fantastic question. I think most things leave a trace, which is what a lot of this book is about. I think we think we live in an imaginary time where some things can get gone-for-good, but that of course is mostly not true. Our current ecological crisis involves the accumulative and insurmountable ways that that is not true. But also: oils left from our fingers on papers. Your body sheds little pieces of skin and hair everywhere you go. I think that these facts also relate to history. I think ideas or even brands leave behind traces. Dozens of lions with different names across decades played Leo the Lion on screen for the MGM logo roar that preceded hundreds of films. One of these lions survived for five days alone in the desert after its small plane crashed. Imagine a company of men searching in the desert for days for their living, breathing brand. Savage Pageant is this as well. Searching through an archive of information, sometimes blank and parched and dead, for a living, breathing thing. Nothing is truly ever deleted. Blood leaves a lot of different kinds of stains.
Jessica Q. Stark is a mixed-race, Vietnamese poet originally from California. She is a doctoral candidate in English at Duke University where she writes on the intersections of American poetry and comic books. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, the latest titled Vasilisa the Wise (Ethel Zine Press, 2018). Her chapbook manuscript, The Liminal Parade, was selected by Dorothea Lasky for Heavy Feather‘s Double Take Poetry Prize in 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Hobart Pulp, Tupelo Quarterly, Glass Poetry Journal, and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Savage Pageant, is forthcoming with Birds, LLC in March 2020. She writes an ongoing poetry zine called INNANET and is an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI.