An Interview with Kevin Phan, author of Mountain/West Poetry Series Book Dears, Beloveds
Nov 13, 2020
Kevin Phan lives in Colorado. He attended the University of Iowa (BA) and the University of Michigan (MFA). His poetry has previously appeared in Best New Poets, Gulf Coast, the Cincinnati Review, the Georgia Review, and many other fine journals. For a living, he works with the earth. Photography, mountain biking, backpacking, cooking, and organic gardening are a few of his hobbies. This is his first collection of poetry. After working on Dears, Beloveds as the typesetter, associate editor and social media manager Jordan Osborne reached out to Phan to talk more about his poetry, writing process, and more.
Jordan Osborne: Having worked with these poems as part of the book’s production team, I was so powerfully struck by how they pay a particular kind of attention to the physicality of the world—the objects and bodies we come into contact with on a daily basis. It’s the sort of careful attention that vividly offers the world back to itself (something I admire greatly in poetry) by surrounding readers with mangoes and oceans and so many flowers. I mean, to say these poems are immersive would be putting it lightly! Can you talk about what writing these poems was like for you? I imagine it as both painful and delightful.
Kevin Phan: Sure. Yeah, that’s a great point. So many of the people in my cohort at the University of Michigan, where I did my MFA in poetry, have transitioned into academia to teach post grad school. This was never my intent. During my life, I’ve delivered furniture for a merchandising warehouse; washed dishes for a greasy spoon diner; carried bricks twelve hours a day at a Buddhist temple; operated front-end loaders, skid steers, tractors, and backhoes. Currently, I work for the City of Boulder Parks & Rec department as a maintenance technician. During my entire adult life I’ve not had a job indoors. So my life has been marked by the experience of being whelmed and (at times) overwhelmed by the natural environment.
Perhaps this explains the seepage of the natural wonders (and mysteries) of the corporeal, sensate world into these poems. Often, I think of myself as someone who is thinking of Allen Ginsberg who was thinking of Walt Whitman when he wrote, in “A Supermarket in California”: “. . . I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon./In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!”
That’s what it was like writing this book! The writing began in Iowa, in Marion. My mother was diagnosed with bone cancer, and I took a leave of absence from my job for a month. I returned home with a suitcase full of books and a couple changes of clothes. Living in the lightless basement, I read Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Terrance Hayes. I wandered around in the fields, shopping for images—dead birds and deep green light all around me. And my mother’s health was rapidly deteriorating one floor above. I listened to her footsteps dragging across the floor. And during that month, the early drafts of these poems began to take shape. I knew I wanted to write but didn’t know what I was writing toward. Many of the heavier poems in this collection were written earlier, and the light pieces were written later as a counterweight to balance and recalibrate the collection. Yet, as challenged as I felt as my mother’s health quickly worsened, I tried to remain mindful and centered in the awareness that there was still a deep richness and beauty happening in the world.
JO: The universal form of these poems was such an important part of encountering them, for me. It made room for the gathering complexity in a way that let each poem surprise me without leading me to each surprising moment. How did this form arrive for you and for the poems?
KP: That’s a great question. I think that my approach to form within these poems is related to a couple of things. Because so many of these poems are considerations of grief, whether personal (the dying and eventual death of my mother) or global (species extinction), and because grief does not have an endpoint (though it does change over time, of course), I thought it important to leave much of the meaning-making in these poems open ended. Because I wrote all of these drafts within a couple of years of my mother’s passing, the unsettled structure of these poems mirrored where I was in the grieving process. A linear or more conventional narrative form wouldn’t have honestly reflected my experience of the world at that time.
What’s more, as a student of Buddhism, so much of what gets revealed in meditation is that it’s possible to decouple the illusion of self with the storyline that it is generating. And not only that it’s possible, but that it’s critically necessary to decouple ourselves from personal storylines so that we can have an honest perspective and vantage point of what is really going on in the world. Which propels us out of our comfort zone to realize that many other beings are having a very different experience of the world than we are as humans, both internally and externally. My goal in these pieces was to offer a sense of the richness of polyphonic perspectives. A chorus of voices. And the structure of the book tries to reflect this awareness.
JO: Questions of harm, culpability, responsibility, and complicity are also threaded throughout this book. I keep thinking of the line “& To bear witness is to be alive with our cuts” and the recurring motif of doomed pigs. Considering the moment we’re inhabiting socially and politically, how do you think of the relationship between culpability/responsibility/complicity and poetry? A huge and heavy question, I know, but it’s something I’ve been mulling over a lot lately, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you don’t mind sharing them.
KP: Sure. No, not at all. I don’t mind sharing.
All poetry is political. And all poetry has always been political, as poet Heather McHugh once told me during a private conversation, insofar as all poetry has always made an argument, to one degree or another. And, if you believe in science, then you have to believe that the earth is experiencing an existential threat. So many species are already gone. And it is the capability of poetry to shine light on this truth. Yet, at the same time, morose seriousness doesn’t seem all that helpful, either. During a conference on the state of the natural world in New York City, the Dalai Lama would often amusedly chuckle in response to questions from audience members when the tone was overly serious, and he would gently make fun of the question-asker for their seriousness. The Dalai Lama, in another instance, was said to have shrugged off the entire situation that we currently find ourselves facing, saying, “World’s come into being, and world’s go out of being.”
Now that’s the long view!
But having said this, I do think that (at least in my personal life) I try to behave in ways that don’t unnecessarily hasten the demise of earth, or make the existence of other being unnecessarily complicated or ruinous. As poet Juliana Spahr writes in a refrain, “Gentle, now, don’t add to heartache.” I do remember during grad school doing online research on YouTube and getting sucked down a rabbit hole of increasingly violent slaughterhouse videos, culminating in a video of a farmer in China using a backhoe to push pigs into a deep earthen pit, where more and more layers of pigs were pushed in, until all of the pigs began suffocating each other to death. The context of the video was unclear, though I suspect it was related to a disease outbreak. At one point during the video, a young woman is shown running away from the camera, and the videographer follows her into the woods, where she stops, doubles over forward, and violently weeps. And by relaying this sadness all I mean to say is that I’m trying to be a good human who makes ethical choices that don’t unnecessarily add to the suffering and heartache of others, while acknowledging that all of us live within our cuts. While, at the same time, trying to communicate that there is still plenty of wonderment to be felt and known.
For me, poetry is the vessel through which I’m trying to understand how my body, in time and in space, is loving other bodies. And how it is harming other bodies. And how it is assisting other bodies. And how it is failing to acknowledge other bodies.
JO: Grief plays such an important role in these poems, whether it’s being directly reckoned with or quietly haunting the page. And it’s such dynamic grief, too—moving between and among losses both personal and global (family members, the doomed pigs, entire species). I do see hope as well, of a sort, in the way each poem gathers the world closer. I’m interested in how you see these poems working with/in that duality or, rather, spectrum.
KP: Grief and hope are strange bedfellows. But I think that the moment we find ourselves living in, full of political, personal, and ecological grief is an entry point to an enormous amount of compassion. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says in one of his teachings that a prescription for conflict resolution is hugging meditation. Hugging meditation is as simple as it sounds: you look into the other person’s eyes, imagine them two hundred years from now (which is to say, dead) and (hopefully) all petty grievances will be put into clear perspective, and you can go beyond grievances and relearn to love one another. Similarly, because we are all “fellow sufferers” (Schopenhauer’s term) and because we will all know grief, the hope is that with a little bit of perspectival shift we can live with the hope that we share this thing called living, for now. This hope is the thing that shines through when I talk in the book about the need to “scrub away seams.”
The hope that I felt in the writing of these poems was simply the hope that, in honestly and sincerely putting my life on page during the early stages of grief, that this would open up a space in the readers heart because I’m trying to talk about a type of experience with which they can identify. Either because they had experienced this type of grief, too, or could imagine what it’s like. In seeing my grief and my attempt to navigate its weight, they would know that they are experiencing a recognizable heartbeat on the other side of these pages.
JO: I keep talking about and thinking about gathering in relation to this collection, and sound seems to be an important tool in facilitating that. So many lines have such an incredible musicality. How did that music arrive for you? Does music play a role in your writing process?
KP: Wow. That’s an incredible question. I’ve never thought of the interrelationship between sound and gathering until just now, as you ask me to make this contemplation. My mind is immediately going to author Allan Bloom who, in his book The Closing of the American Mind, bemoans the fact that you could tell a modern young person that their God is dead and they would hardly flinch (perhaps even look bored). Yet try to deprive that same individual of their most cherished music and you will surely be met with the most extreme hostility, anger, and resentment. Bloom was arguing that music, in our society, has reached a level of deification—one of our most unfailing values.
For me, my taste in music has evolved throughout my life. As a child, I deeply delighted in pop music. Mariah Carey, Boys II Men, Metallica. That sort of thing. My older brother, who always wished to push the envelope, introduced me to hardcore rap in my early teens. Artists like 2 Live Crew and Easy-E. And as I grew older, my appetite for music became more ethereal and conceptual. Less lyric based and more feeling/mood/tone based. When I was twenty-one, I attended the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and another attendee, Adam, introduced me to the music genre post-rock. In particular, he loaned me his music player, and I sat in a hot patch of sunshine and listened through earbuds to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s, “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.” The cross-hatching of classical instruments, hard rock, and sampled voiced laid above the tracks blew my mind! This same type of musicality (a vast gathering in of voices, interpretations, and senses) I’ve learned to strive for in my own poetics.
Similarly, I listen to a lot of classical/chamber/orchestral music. Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glass, Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, etc. My dear friend Christopher and I attended the Faculty Tuesday series at the University of Colorado for years, and I regularly attend events by the Colorado Symphony. When I considered the shape I wanted this book to take, I meditated on the shape of symphonies that I love. I wanted something that would swell and contract, bang around, then soften, fall out of focus, then appear in sharp relief.
Just one other point: I tend know what the poem is complete when it sounds right in my mind. After reading it aloud, if I can say to myself, “Yep. That sounds right. This one’s a banger!” I know the poem is complete.
JO: Aside from writing poems, do you engage in any other creative/generative work? If so, how do you see them in relation to each other?
KP: Most def. Yeah, much of my free time is spent taking photographs. I have a beloved friend, Bryce, and he has been my photography buddy for about fifteen years. We both have professional-level cameras, but are mostly into just playing around and having fun with images. Photography is interesting because it literally means writing with light. Just as in poetry, the photographer has to determine subject matter, angle from which to take the photograph, the shutter speed/exposure, the time of day to begin, and what to isolate in the frame.
There is a famous photograph by the founder of my spiritual tradition, Chogyam Trungpa. In the photo, there is the letter “T” in the upper right hand corner, a partially obscured letter followed by “co” in the lower right hand corner, and a deep expanse of blue sky filling in the rest of the frame. It’s a deep blue toward the top and it lightens toward the bottom. A classic Colorado sky of azure richness. And so the question becomes: what is the focal point? The man-made advertisement or the naturally occurring phenomena? Or, more to the point (and beyond oversimplified duality), how is ecology and the thumbprint of humanity playing off one another, and mutually informing each other? This is what I think about in my photography and my poems.
Anyhow, I’m also into organic gardening, plant propagation, cooking southeast Asian cuisine, writing nonfiction, and construction projects. Poetry and all of these other interests relate to each other because I approach them with a sense of play. Playfulness and creativity bring me deep, deep joy. It almost feels like a religious experience. It’s totally consuming.
JO: Who would you recommend (writers, thinkers, artists, etc.) for those interested in deepening, widening, or vivifying their own projects?
KP: Oh my. That’s a tricky question. It really depends on what that person is working on. All projects are different, so the emotional and psychological nutriment that each person and their project needs is very individualistic. Part of the trajectory of personal growth involves collaging together a whole community of influences, yet so much of what a person needs to do is to shut out the chorus of competing voices, to meditate, and to create art as though nobody else is watching, listening, or waiting for the art.
For me personally, I’d have to say that these are the things that have been occupying my mind and attention recently:
- Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle (craft essays).
- Constellation Prize by Bianca Giaever (podcast). In particular, her episode titled “Two Years with Franz,” her deep dive into the audio recordings of Franz Wright, Pulitzer Prize winning poet.
- The John Wick trilogy (movies).
- Beyoncé’s music videos.
- Capacity by Big Thief (music).
- Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (essays).
- YouTube videos of Andrea Gibson (performance poet).
- Postcolonial Love Poem Natalie Diaz (poetry).
Jordan Osborne is a third-year MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where she works as Social Media Manager and Associate Editor for the Colorado Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Canary, Rogue Agent, and Red Rock Review.