Gavin Gao recently graduated with a BA in English from the University of Michigan, where he received a Hopwood Award and the Arthur Miller Arts Award for his poetry. His work has appeared online in such publications as Rise Up Review and HOUSEGUEST. Last year, we nominated Gavin’s poem, “To the Man on the Bus Who Told Me to Go Back to Where I Came From,” for a Pushcart Prize. Below, we talk to him about his writing process, inspirations, and his experience working with our previous editors.
Emily Holland : Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? Do you write by hand before typing? Always type? Take notes?
Gavin Gao: I always try to write the first draft in a journal, usually just a skeleton of what I envision the poem would be. But rarely do I find the version I put down on paper satisfactory, so I often have to work it out in a Word document, which definitely allows me more freedom to restructure a poem as well as the boldness to take the kind of risks in my writing that I would normally eschew on paper. Most of the times, the poem becomes more fleshed out and focused as I work on it on my laptop. But there are also occasions where I overwrite in my journal and find myself cutting out images or even entire stanzas from the poem in Word.
As much as the electronic tool makes me more willing to experiment, I always come back to the journal to keep my writing grounded. My experience tells me that my phrasal choices tend to be less judicious if I only work on a poem in Word. Perhaps there is a quality of seriousness attending the act of writing on a piece of paper that registers unconsciously in one’s mind and compels one to weigh each word with great care.
E: What was the catalyst for writing this Pushcart-nominated poem?
G: Back in September 2017, I was living in Sydney, Australia after four years of college in the relatively sheltered environment of Ann Arbor, Michigan. On a bus ride from downtown Sydney back to my apartment, without warning, the gentleman sitting diagonally across from me propped his feet up on the seat next to me. I kindly asked him to refrain from doing so, which prompted him to lash out at me by telling me to “go back to where [I] came from.” He said he would not be “bossed around by an Asian in his own country.” A white lady sitting across the aisle, having witnessed the whole outburst, turned to me and suggested that I find another place to sit.
Having spent the last four years in the protective bubble of a progressive college town where any action or speech that may be construed as an expression of racism or any other form of discrimination was thoroughly critiqued and reflected upon by a community of supportive staff and peers, I was ill-prepared for and dumbfounded by this tirade. I would like to believe all of this had nothing to do with race and deep-seated prejudices. I would like to believe it was nothing more than an isolated incident. But I also realized that I would be burying my head in the sand, if I continued refusing to accept the fact that, in many ways, Trump’s rise to power had legitimized the long-held racist beliefs of many individuals across the world and emboldened them to air their toxic views, and that no matter how many times the media tried to convince us that we live in a post-racial era, racism embodied by virulent attacks like the one I was subjected to is not a thing of the past.
Months passed. The distress caused by that outburst receded, but that man’s words stayed with me. In a sense, I followed his advice and traced my personal history back to the agrarian past of my paternal grandfather and his ancestors, who had worked for their whole lives as itinerant farm hands in tea and corn fields in Southern China. Their life was one of austerity and great uncertainty, always at the mercy of the land they toiled on, yet, at the same time, they must also strive to live in harmony with it. This notion of a harmonious, almost spiritual relationship between non-Western people and their natural surroundings has long been romanticized and commercialized by popular culture in the West, but few here seem to fully comprehend the extent to which human life is intertwined with nature in communities outside the west or the complexity of any such relationship. When bigots tell people of color, especially immigrants, to “go back to where they came from,” it is as if these close-minded individuals were speaking from a position of authority under girded by the misguided belief that the countries and cultures that those people and their ancestors came from are somehow inferior. The original impulse for this poem comes from a desire to challenge that false sense of authority and to show those individuals that, in fact, they know next to nothing about the culture or the people they are insulting, or the hardship immigrants have had to endure to be where they are today.
E: Can you talk a bit about the process of editing with Jody and Ethelbert? I know they take a very “hands-on” approach with the poems after they select them for publication. What is it like to get their feedback and workshop the poems before they go to print?
G: I have Jody to thank for the final, published version of my poems. She was kind enough to provide me with some very astute comments in which she precisely identified the relative strengths and flaws of each piece while remaining respectful of my opinions throughout the whole process. The editorial changes that she suggested—which helped to streamline the language in my poems—not only improved their flow, but also sharpened their focus. After reading through the copy edits, I could see exactly why certain images and modifiers were superfluous and needed paring down for the initial impulse to shine through, even though there were some images that I wanted to cling onto and was reluctant to let go of. These days, I still refer to her edits to see if I could emulate the success of that revision process.
E: Are there topics/themes that you see often in your own work?
G: I’m always hesitant to look for recurring topics or themes in my own work, partly because doing so would be admitting to myself that there is a traceable pattern in my writing that perhaps I have come to rely on as a safe bet, and I will have to face the possibility that my obsessions may one day be exhausted and I will have no story left to tell that hasn’t been told before.
But putting that fear aside and looking through my poems from the last two years, I find that what often drives them is an impulse to wrestle with oblivion, which, for me, is the gradual effacement of memory through the works of time, death or some other larger forces that are beyond human understanding or control. It has not escaped me that this act of wrestling with oblivion and with loss almost always requires the resurrection or recreation of a memory, a process that is bound to fall prey to inaccuracy and therefore is seemingly at odds with the kind of precision that is often demanded of poetic language. We may never fully rescue from oblivion the things that we hold dear, and our effort to register our time and experience here with precision may seem at times Sisyphean, but I also think it is the awareness of this futility and helplessness that makes poetry—and by extension all art that tries to articulate the experiences of living—possible and necessary.
E: How is this poem either representative of or different from your work overall?
G: Most if not all of my poems unfold around a single experience around which the poem organizes its images and movements. This poem has its origin in a particular life experience, but that experience doesn’t serve as a center around which the poem orients itself so much as a basis of reality that the poem can react against. So much of the imagery in this poem comes from a vision that the reality this poem attempts to react against has failed to imagine or account for. I’d like to think that the chief impetus for this poem is to flesh out that vision of a self-reliant and resilient agrarian ancestral hometown rather than search for it with the uncertainty as to whether this place exists or not, though one could reasonably argue that the process of expanding on that vision is, in a way, a form of searching in itself.
E: There is a lot of dirt/soil/growth imagery in the poem and I’m particularly struck by the strong presence of consonance, especially if the poem is read aloud. These images and sounds seem to implore the addressee of the poem to listen and pay attention. And I keep finding myself coming back to the image of the phoenix emerging from the river (not ash). All of this is really to ask how you see these working together — the idea of something almost pastoral juxtaposed with the mythology of the phoenix, and how you seem to subvert readers’ expectations at every turn? Because, though the title sets this poem up as a letter, it does not follow a typical form.
G: Yes, you are right to note that this poem does not follow the typical epistolary form. I think the intention here is to show the addressee the vision of a more spontaneous, closer-to-nature way of life that he is apparently incapable of envisioning and the vertical landscape represented by the poem’s current form is intended to visually demand the reader’s attention, although the speaker never privileges one way of life over another. Even though much of the imagery in this poem is pastoral, there is also an element of human artifice that is closely linked with and balances each element of nature: “the name of every leaf & sparrow” that suggests the human instinct to name things, the grandfather’s “storied life” that echoes our long and rich narrative tradition, “the book of the good turf” that alludes to the human need to record things, and last but not least, the myth of the phoenix that was passed down orally as folklore from generation to generation. In this poem, “our language is the rain” and “tender shoots” are “whisper[ed].” I feel that the poem in part acknowledges that though there exists an alternate culture whose people follow a lifestyle that allows them to be more attuned to the natural world, there are also some universal human experiences and traditions that no one can entirely shake off no matter how immersive their experience of nature is. Our seemingly different ways of life end up uniting rather than dividing us.
E: What writers inspire you?
G: The poems of William Blake, W.B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas are definitely early influences. I think as a child, I was very much drawn to—and perhaps even, at one point, wished to inhabit—the mystic, other-worldly visions that their language invokes. It was not until I was in high school that I realized how unsettling those visions sometimes were: the laughing Old John in Blake’s “The Echoing Green,” Yeats’s Magi with “faces like rain-beaten stones,” and the owls “bearing the farm away” in Thomas’s “Fern Hill” have always haunted my unconscious mind.
But if I have to name one poet whose work inspired me to write and opened a whole world of language for me, it has to be Laura Kasischke. Laura was my teacher during my undergraduate years at Michigan. She has a way of discerning the uncanny in otherwise quotidian experiences and conveys these experiences with potent, precise images and a dense soundscape that allow you to recall her poems with great ease and accuracy even months after you read them. She is very particular about every decision she makes in her poems: even her line breaks play a fundamental part in the way you read her poems. I think her attention to details definitely rubbed off on me. I come back to her poems again and again not just because of their technical mastery, but more because they are so keenly aware of how vulnerable the few important people and things in our lives are and what drives her poetry is always a desire to protect what she knows too well that she is ultimately in capable of protecting.
E: Do you have any poems out right now or coming out that we should make note of to help promote?
G: I have two poems in the most recent issue of wildness, “Lullaby” and “Wild Nothing.”