An Interview with South Dakota Poet Laureate Lee Ann Roripaugh

Conducted by Linda Russo:

In April of last year, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the work and person of Lee Ann Roripaugh. We were reading our poetry as participants in “Poetry of the Plains, High Desert, and Prairie,” a panel at the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Lee was seated to my right, and I can recall an almost emerald vibrancy about her, though I know this is because she read a poem looking (in the manner of Wallace Stevens) at the Vermillion River that runs through southeast South Dakota, where she lives. Lee has spoken of how places “imprint” one, and this resonated with my sense of poetry as a deft means of getting quickly at the effect of experiences of place and locatedness, a way of investigating the source and energy without the pressure of having to categorize, delimit, or know with deadening certainty. Her work speaks through a genetic imprint and cultural locatedness as well. Her mother is Japanese and this cultural inheritance has obviously been a huge influence on how she negotiates being in the world and the role poetry plays in that process. In preparing for this interview, I found it interesting as a reader to experience her evolving strategies for speaking from her cultural positioning. It appears differently in each book—from the historical in Beyond Heart Mountain (1998), which, written in a plain style, approaches World War II Japanese internment camps, to the incorporation of cultural images and a lexicon in Year of the Snake (2004), to the recycling of strategies from the writings of 10th century Japanese diarists Sei Shonogan and Lady Murasaki in Notes on the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (2009), to residing in and reflecting on a slippery place between languages (and forms) in Dandarians (2014). We conducted this interview via email as winter approached in 2015.

LR: Poems for you are a powerful site of exchange. “Language is action. It’s the medium by which we act upon the world, and through which the world is enacted upon us,” as you have written. You also write of poetry’s ability to “create new neural pathways in the brain” and certainly when I read one of your poems with their estrangement and the incredible connective twists and turns of a poem’s logic, I feel my brain working in an unusual way, not unlike what I experience when reading Marianne Moore. Who are some [modernist] poets you include in your lineage?

LAR: Definitely Marianne Moore, as well as her mentee Elizabeth Bishop—both writers capable of scientific precision, yet originally artful with their quirky defamiliarizations (Moore) and whimsical toggling between the tensions of the representation vs. the real (Bishop). Also Sylvia Plath, whose work, I feel, is equally modernist as it is confessional and for whom the label confessional is a too-easy reduction based on an overfamiliarity with her biography. Plath’s tour-de-force metaphor-making, with its painterly precision and surrealistic strangeness is definitely part of a lineage emerging from modernism that I would like to claim. Consider the opening lines from Plath’s poem “Insomniac,” for example: “The night is only a sort of carbon paper, / Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars / Letting in the light, peephole after peephole—” Here, we see the brilliantly, yet somewhat surrealistically imagined, yet simultaneously precise conflation of nature (stars) with technology (carbon paper and typewriters), in a way that makes me swoon!

LR: Year of the Snake and Notes on the Cusp of a Dangerous Year both convey an intensity of seeing/sensing and responding to everyday things, in particular what we think of as the “natural world.” In the title poem from Notes, two ladybugs are observed “sexing each other up,” in language that is playfully ornate, verbal rococo: “Afterwards, the rust one / split open the candy-shell coating of its back / (smooth, Lamborghini-like hydraulics of upraised / elytra, shocking glimpse of delicate, black-tissue-/ paper wings unfurling underneath) and flew away.” In another interview, you talk of wanting to “resist clichéd, bucolic representations of nature.” This is certainly not the description of a “naturalist” delving into the facts of the existence of these earthly inhabitants! What do your poems draw us into that clichéd representations do not? I want to hear your defense of your resistance, beyond “I don’t like to be told what to do” (though understandable). How do we benefit from a refusal of conventions of seeing nature?

LAR: I feel that nature is so often conceptualized and held in aesthetic and ideological stasis as the Other, in that foundational binary between Self and Other. This process of Othering seems to place nature in hierarchically less privileged positions between other fixed binaries, such as Male vs. Female, Civilization vs. Wilderness, Urban vs. Rural, Cultured vs. Feral, etc. I believe that conventional representations of nature are conventional in large part because they replicate these binaries, with all of their inherent hegemonies. Convention, to me, implies that something is already known/knowable and mastered/masterable—as such, doomed to both reinforce and legitimize the language and structures of empire, patriarchy, and capital—both consciously and unconsciously representing nature as objectifiable, colonizable, penetratable, and commodifiable.We need to find better, more collaborative, more original, ways of thinking through our relationships with and to nature. Beginning, I feel, with the Self and Other dichotomy. As human beings we are always already part of nature and inextricably connected to the natural world—reliant upon and in physical circulation with our biosphere. I frequently like to resist the Technology vs. Nature dichotomy, which so often ghettoizes nature in a falsely pristine, fetishized, nostalgic space. I delight in creating recursive conduits or tape-loops of technology, art, and nature—collapsing, eliding, and juxtaposing the highly-constructed techne (in the sense of craft) of verbal rococo to explore strange and unlikely techne of the natural world, juxtaposed or associated with the techne of actual technology (which is oftentimes designed in imitation of nature).

LR: Later, this same poem proclaims how a “quintessential / pumpkin-ness fills [you] with intense pleasure.” This urge achieves full expression in Cusp—there’s a ravished peach in this book (“Luscious Things”)! Your poems often seem an attempt to remain in or recreate moments of intense pleasure. There is a lot of lush and languor seemingly for lush and languor’s sake, in the way that Sei Shonagon wrote to amuse herself. Many of the poems in this book echo her predilection of listing things, but with a contemporary, feminist twist. What led you to, then drew you to, this 10th century diarist?

LAR: I became drawn to Sei Shonagon during a period of time when I was thinking through questions of inclusion and canonicity—in particular, asking the question whose canon? And given that the standard literary canon certainly didn’t seem like my canon, what canon would I choose for myself if I could, and where would it begin? This drew me to the 10th-century Japanese Heian writers—a flourishing literary period in Japan dominated by women writers, poets, and diarists, including Lady Murasaki, who wrote the world’s first extant novel, The Tale of Genji. Murasaki led me to other Heian-period women poets and diarists such as Ono no Komachi, Princess Shikishi, and of course Sei Shonagon, among others.What I love so much about Sei Shonagon, in particular, is how vital and relevant—even in translation, and even over the course of centuries—The Pillow Book still remains today: lovely, delicate, wry, sexy, snarky, and funny in its meticulous listing of carefully rendered moments. The lushness and languor of my contemporary pillow book, On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, was, in part, a deliberate attempt to echo and pay homage to the carefully cultivated neurasthenic aesthetic of Heian-period culture and literature, but also, too, a way of attempting to emulate Heian-period attentiveness to the moment and intense pleasure in small, earthy delights. For Heian-period courtiers, the appearance of a particular autumnal moon, for example, might be the occasion for a moon-viewing party, and this pleasure would then be further savored and extended through the writing of poems, each moment’s pleasure framed and given full attention, then burnished and cast in language. During this period of my life, this seemed like an ideal way of being not only a writer, but also a person.

LR: You call Dandarians a book of “lyric flash essays.” You’ve mentioned how these approach desire and the impossibility of communicating, the slipperiness of language, being yourself in between languages. These prose pieces do this wonderfully on many levels. Two significantly. First, there’s the example of holding on to the pleasure you take in seeing purple musk thistles on the banks of the Vermillion River after learning they are invasive and considered “a scourge, a pestilence.” Then there’s the some gender trouble regarding your mother’s sense of the “obligatory importance of being fem-a-nint” —a word that sounds to you a lot like “government” and corresponds to the “governing of a transgressive female body.” There is an analogue here between the weed and the girl—what “species” are you? Where do you belong? Your book does cultural work in thinking through similarities, differences, boundaries, adaptation, subversion. This is effective because the prose poem and lyric essay offer a broader canvas for your signature bold and subtle strokes. How did you come to this flash-hybrid form and how did the pieces in this book—most of them over two pages long—come together?

LAR: Oh, thank you for noticing the analogue between weed and girl (who will take over your garden) here! It seems like one of the complexities of diaspora that a non-native species will function (or be perceived to function) differently (become invasive! pestilent!) when rooted in a new environment. In Japan, for example, kudzu is used for medicinal purposes, as a sauce thickener in lieu of corn starch, for edible dishes, and to make jam and tea, whereas in the American South it’s an invasive species, a pestilence. Because Dandarians is a book about that slippery, liminal, transgressive space between signifier and signified, coupled with hybrid identities, fluid gender orientation, and a dash of gender trouble, it seemed important to me to play with the performative nature of language, as well as queer the arbitrary distinctions between genre. The “lyric flash essays” based on word betrayals (words miscommunicated to me from my Japanese mother that took on their own connotative context and symbolic weight) formed the backbone of this book, and the lyric flash essays originally started out as a series of blog posts. At this time, I was also very interested in semiotics and biosemiotics, questions of communication, symbol, and code, and I would frequently post prose poem drafts exploring these ideas. At some point, it finally occurred to me that this was turning into a hybrid-genre project, and that it was all part of the same book. Voila! Dandarians.

LR: Our reading at the 2015 AWP brought together 5 poets “writing on the margins of today’s urban poetic centers” with the hopes of “diversif[ying] and challeng[ing] the idea of the centers of contemporary American poetry.” Did/do you ever feel the pull of the coasts and/or poetic urban centers, and has where you are effected what you thought you could achieve?

LAR: I do feel the pull of the coasts, as well as poetic urban centers such as Minneapolis, in particular. On the west coast, I’m instantly recognized as being half-Japanese, and there’s a sense of belonging there that I find very powerful. And I have an alternate, fantasy NYC East Village life. (I would like to live in the apartment encircled by the brontosaurus tail above Gothic Cabinet Craft on 3rdAve., near The Smith?) But visiting a place and living there are so very different. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel extensively and give readings throughout the country, and maybe this is the best way? To stay someplace a few days at a time and fall in love with it, and then come home to open skies and rolling plains before becoming hopelessly overstimmed? But yes, I do feel as if it’s harder to stay on the radar, more difficult to be included in the larger conversations, when one doesn’t live in one of the urban poetic centers. And there are problematic essentialist assumptions that other poets sometimes make about poets living/working in the margins regarding our aesthetics, our intellect, our politics, etc. And sometimes there can be a kind of isolation, as well. That said, I feel as if living in the margins has offered me certain kinds of transgressive freedoms, as any sort of liminal position does. As well as different ways by which to culturally position myself, in the absence of larger Asian American and/or urban poetic communities. The endangered whooping cranes, who most resemble Japanese cranes, have slowly begun to come back from near-extinction through learning to migrate and cohabitate with the sandhill cranes. My friend, the writer Allison Hedge Coke, who hosted an annual crane festival and retreat during her time teaching in Kearney, Nebraska, said that I was like the whooping crane moving with the sandhills. I love that!

LR: Reading your books in sequence, it’s apparent that in each you speak more powerfully through your cultural positioning. And now we’ve come to this point where yellowface has emerged, in the recent Best American Poetry scandal perpetrated by Michael Derrick Hudson who published under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou out of a sense, as he explains it, of his poetry being disregarded in an era of “political correctness” because he is as a white male. You recently took part in a roundtable on “Policing the Other in the Literary World” that brought together eight female POC poets to share their experiences and discuss a way forward. What to your mind are we learning, or do we need to learn, from this moment, these events?

LAR: Thank you, and thank you, also, for using the term “cultural positioning”. I think what we need to learn from this cultural moment, and these recent literary yellowface and blackface scandals, is that embodied marginalized experiences come with actual lived hegemonies, the constant petty tyranny of microaggressions, even the threat of physical harm or death. This creates the possibility for powerful speech, but the resonance of that speech is created by specific power dynamics—that of margin talking back to the centers of power. The hope is to be heard. The desire is for decentering. But when the center negates the collaborative potential of listening and making room for marginalized voices through shouting over, or speaking on behalf of, or attempting to (mis)appropriate the power of these speech acts through donning yellowface or blackface, etc., it simply recenters and reifies the same cultural hegemonies and violence that prompts the necessity for these speech acts in the first place.There is vulnerability/risk in speaking from a traditionally marginalized voice: the risk of not being heard, the risk of being heard and being fetishized or tokenized, the risk of being heard and being further marginalized, the risk of being expected to speak on behalf of an entire subject position, the risk of not adequately representing a subject position, the risk of threatening the status quo, the risk of being threatened, and the risk of worse . . . much, much worse.There is no risk in (mis)appropriating a marginalized identity from a position of comparative privilege, there is only gross entitlement. Apparently, Michael Derrick Hudson not only felt entitled to impersonate a female Chinese literary identity, but he did so as a result of feeling slighted because publishers were being asked to, and many have been sincerely attempting to, find more ways to make their publications more representative. Perhaps Hudson felt that his publication acceptances and BAP selection proved his point. But frankly, I feel that as Yi-Fen Chou, Hudson’s work was more intriguing specifically because of the tensions raised between aesthetic choices, language, gender presentation, and ideology. As an editor, I wouldn’t have assumed, but would have guessed, that perhaps Yi-Fen Chou was a female poet, probably a first-generation immigrant, and therefore possibly not a native speaker of English. I would have found her ventriloquism of slangy Americanisms juxtaposed with classical Western allusions, and a potentially non-conformative gender presentation aesthetically, ideologically, and linguistically arresting filtered through the subject position suggested by her name. As Yi-Fen Chou, this work would have created a defamiliarizing and potentially subversive take on Western language and culture if Yi-Fen Chou were actually Yi-Fen Chou, and not Michael Derrick Hudson in yellowface. Context matters deeply, I believe, and context is everything here.

LR: You were interviewed on public radio about your new position as Poet Laureate of South Dakota. As I listened to you talk about building communities, and about Basho’s travelling and collaborating with people in different places, I was reminded of U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrerra’s collaborative-epic project “La Casa de Colores.” What would you like to do during your tenure?

LAR: I’m hoping to travel as extensively throughout the state of South Dakota as possible, giving readings and conducting workshops. I would particularly love to reach out to underserved communities, young writers/poets, and Native American communities. In particular, I’m envisioning a larger project where (ideally, with the collaboration of both local and national Native American poets) I conduct workshops with young Native American poets, ultimately culminating in a special issue of South Dakota Review devoted to their work. But a lot of the work, too, I feel, is listening to various communities and doing my best to meet/serve their respective needs in terms of readings, talks, workshops, and facilitated literary events.

LR: You’ve been teaching for over 15 years. What are some of the things you try to give to your students, and what have you learned from your students?

LAR: I try to offer my students a collaborative relationship in which I offer them the best aesthetic, professional, and editorial advice that I can in order to help them write the poetry they most aspire to write. I also try to offer them a model for practicing poetry (in addition to reading what they are organically drawn to, reading as deeply and widely and eclectically as possible, staying abreast of current conversations and publications in poetics, monitoring the ebb and flow of various literary journals and presses). And I encourage them to be rigorous in asking themselves hard questions about their art, resisting complacency in their practice, and being open to flux—understanding that aesthetic preferences, conversations, trends, and presses will shift and change and cycle back around again in different incarnations. My students? They are a constant reminder of this lovely flux, this beautiful shapeshifting.

This interview originally appeared at Blood Orange Review and is reprinted with permission. Photo by Tivolatman, sourced via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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