author photo: Lisa Low
LISA LOW was born and raised in Maryland. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in cream city review, The Journal, Vinyl, The Collagist, and elsewhere. A graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program, she is a PhD candidate and Yates Fellow at the University of Cincinnati. For more, visit lisa-low.com.
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VI KHI NAO: Can you talk a little about your name, Lisa. Especially your last name. Did you ever want to be “HIGH”? No, pun intended.
LISA LOW: I definitely heard “high” a lot in relation to my name when I was growing up! But I liked Low because of the alliteration and the nicknaming possibilities: lowdown, down-low, and the racial one, low-mein. It’s actually a version of the more common Liu or Lau, but for some reason mine translated to Low. Everyone loves putting an “e” at the end of it, though.
VKN: Did you translate it? Or how did it shift from Liu/Lau to Low?
LL: My grandfather and his parents were already Lows, so it must’ve originated when my great-grandparents immigrated here.
VKN: Where did they come from? Is it China? Can you talk about your grandparents? Are you close to them?
LL: I’m not/wasn’t close to either set of grandparents. My dad’s side is from Guangdong in southern China, and my mom is from Hong Kong. But both of my grandmothers died when I was in elementary school, one grandfather died the year I was born, and my dad isn’t close to his father, so we didn’t spend much time with him growing up. Still now, I see grandparent-grandchild relationships and am envious of them.
VKN: I’m sorry to hear that, Lisa. That must have been so hard for you.
LL: Thank you, I appreciate that.
VKN: Have you written poems about this loss? What do you envy the most about it?
LL: I’ve written about this loss, but it’s more of a loss of not knowing them, rather than the loss of the person and the memories together. When I was a kid, I definitely envied what I perceived to be grandmotherly activities, like having chocolate chip cookies ready for you when you got home. I don’t think either of my grandmothers would do that (not that a grandmother should), and now, I mostly envy a relationship that crosses generations, someone who, it seems to me, loves you, without the expectations of a parent. It seems really unlike other kinds of loving relationships.
VKN: If one of these three poems were to act as a temporary, poetic surrogate for a grandparental connection for you, would it be “Egg Custard King Bakery” or another poem entirely?
LL: “Egg Custard King Bakery” would be a great surrogate! I haven’t thought of poems in that way before, but I do think of magical thinking as a strategy in poems—a way for the speaker to think something into or out of existence.
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Egg Custard King Bakery
We call in a dozen dan tats to-go
ppppppppppbecause it’s Houston & Asians
actually live here. We maneuver
pppppBellaire traffic like they’re the last
ppppppppppppppppppppon the planet—the best.
We leave fathers or husbands in the car to admire
pppppshelves of buns like braided
pppppppppphairdos. We split a sweetheart cake
on the spot. When we look into the glossy
ppppppcustard centers, we almost see
our eyebrows. We breathe in bakery-scented
pppppppppppppppppppppppA/C to sleep in the car.
* * *
VKN: Do you eat desserts when you write poetry? Do you have a favorite?
LL: No, I don’t think I ever have! I have a big sweet tooth, so I think I should explore the possibilities. I usually eat quickly, though, so it might be hard to eat and write at the same time.
VKN: What draws you to poetry? And, in terms of contemporary Chinese female poets, who do you think excel in their form the most? Do you love any of their work?
LL: A lot of reasons, but one of them recently is expressing what I feel that I can’t think of or don’t say in the moment. For example, experiencing microaggressions as a person who hates confrontation, I often think of what I could’ve or should’ve said in the moment and regret thinking of things to say after the fact. But I love how poetry gives that space, or can recreate a space, not necessarily for a different reality, but for communication that rights power imbalances, for what I hope for the future. I love the poets Tina Chang, Victoria Chang, and Jenny Xie. Also, the veteran poets Marilyn Chin and Cathy Song. I just read Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang and was blown away. I’m in love with the title.
VKN: How do you describe your work, Lisa?
LL: I’d describe it as short and spare, with a lot of space to breathe and think.
VKN: Can you talk about how “Photoshoot” was born? How did the form arrive to you? And, did it take you long to write it?
LL: “Photoshoot” is loosely based on a situation that happened to me several years ago. I’m working on a series of poems that explores identity-making in public spaces, especially in terms of race, and this poem, a version of which I wrote last summer, helped me think about how people of color negotiate racial expectations—a theme that pops up often in my writing. In terms of the form, it began in couplets, and when I came back to it recently, I expermimented with indentations, and the form it’s now in didn’t take long. These more extreme indentations, the heaviness with which they drop down to the next line, reflect more of the dissonance of the original photoshoot. I usually love to incorporate the speaker’s thoughts in my poems, but this time, I ended up striking out the thoughts as I became interested in laying out the situation and seeing what surfaced at face value. This poem made me think a lot about artifice, some benign, some damaging—of pretending to work somewhere you don’t, of a program wanting to appear more diverse than it is, the artifice of pleasantness—so it felt fitting to me for the situation to be unfolded without the speaker’s thoughts. She’s caught in a kind of racial artifice that crowds out real-time reflection and direct communication between parties. My hope was for this lack of internalism to deflect some of the discomfort of the situation onto readers themselves.
* * *
My teaching program wanted me
pppppppppppppppppfor marketing. I felt my mother
beaming on the phone, but Mary,
pppppppppppppppppalso solicited & POC, laughed
with me at the nothing we hoped
pppppppppppppppppit’d be. We showed up in blazers
& heels like for an interview, leaned
pppppppppppppppppagainst lockers of a high school
we pretended to work at. I was happy
pppppppppppppppppthey couldn’t capture me
by the months-stale bulletin board
pppppppppppppppppin my room or catch a child throwing
mini Keroppis at my back. Another
pppppppppppppppppteacher arrived black & female.
I looked at Mary but she was smiling
pppppppppppppppppat a row of spelling bee trophies.
I folded my arms, admired the science
ppppppppppppppppptests. I was almost done when a white
man appeared. In the photo with all
pppppppppppppppppfour of us, we threw our arms
around each other like a high
pppppppppppppppppschool clique in a movie.
In my mind, I said something.
* * *
VKN: That’s nice to have distant from your work. Providing you space to edit unconventionally. Poetry project-wise, what are you working on now?
LL: Right now, I’m working on a project that explores family dynamics, power dynamics in an Asian-white relationship, and whiteness as the invisible default. I’m also incorporating dollhouses and seeing how they play into and mirror some of these themes. I like thinking about role-play, what gets mapped onto it from the person who is role-playing, and how traditional positions of power can be reversed.
* * *
At the winery, we pose
ppppppfor pictures, laugh
at the Asian-girl-white-
we make by the barrels.
ppppppSix of us to fulfill
the stereotype. A fifth grader
complete the pattern. Two
ppppppof us with Asian glow. One
with virgin undyed hair. I hope
ppppppthere aren’t other Asians here
to see us with our blonde
ppppppand brunette boyfriends.
In fifth grade, my whole class
pppppploved Brady, but
Brady loved Stephanie. All day
ppppppI daydreamed of Brady’s
ppppppStephanie’s Adidas Tearaway
pants. Which did I love more,
ppppppBrady or his blue eyes?
What could an Asian Brady
pppppphave done to become
that beloved? Am I smarter than
ppppppa fifth grader? Could my
children have blue eyes?
* * *
VKN: On your website, it says you are currently a PhD candidate at University of Cincinnati – how is the program? Who are your instructors?
LL: Yes, I’m a first-year in the program—it’s great! More work than I expected, so the program keeps me busy, but I feel my brain expanding. I’m excited for the summer to decompress and reflect. The faculty poets here are Rebecca Lindenberg and John Drury, and they’re wonderful.
VKN: I hope you are enjoying the program.
LL: Thank you!