The latest collection from Christine Shan Shan Hou is smart, evocative, and at times so quiet, you can hear the sound of a thought forming, and then evaporating. The speakers of these poems meditate on pain, survival, community, and pattern-seeking behavior, while steadily renovating the reader’s experience with a sharp sense of humor (“The natural process of selection shows that those desperate/ to appear easygoing never were”). Throughout, Hou crafts lines that are as mystical as they are pragmatic (“The survival rate is higher for those who don’t react in ugly situations/ But I am not afraid of death or the little bruises I pick up along the way”), as dark as they are nurturing (“We are all members of the public with dreadful hometowns and pathetic hearts”), and as concise as cosmic (“History happens all at once in a string of inconveniences”). With each poem, The Joy and Terror are Both in the Swallowing grips you tightly by its masterful commandeering of mortality and rebuffing of time.
I spoke with Christine online about her new collection from After Hours Editions, her process, seeing and being seen in public, and the Diane Arbus line the book borrows its title from.
Hi Christine, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
I’m writing from my studio/bedroom/basement in Brooklyn. I’ve been holding up OK. Some days are easier than others. These past few weeks have been more difficult/anxiety-inducing than others with the rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes.
It feels impossible not to be overwrought with rage and anxiety with the rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes and rhetoric, especially now, when it’s difficult to seek community. Have you found any resources or routines to help with coping, or is there any way you recommend others to help their friends or peers in the Asian community?
I found this resource document put together by the writer Mimi Lok to be incredibly helpful.
Check in on your AAPI friends to see how they are doing and how you can be of support. It goes a long, long way.
How have you been spending time in isolation?
I spend most of my days taking care of my one and three-year old kids—cooking, cleaning, planning—and if I have the time, a little bit of yoga. At night I will have about 2 hours to myself where I get to work in my studio, read, listen to podcasts, watch tv and/or hang out with my partner.
Which podcasts are your favorite?
Your fourth book, The Joy and Terror are Both in the Swallowing, was recently released by After Hours Editions—congratulations! How does it feel to have the collection out in the world? How long did the collection take to come together?
Feels great to have it in the world! I wrote these poems between the years of 2016-2020.
These poems weave together pain, destruction, survival, habits, and patterns—what drew you to the material? When did you identify what you wanted to write about?
Honestly, I don’t know what exactly draws me to this material. I know that I have always been drawn to this idea of otherness and lack of belonging, and as of recent, I am discovering that much of it stems from understanding my identity as a queer, Hakka Chinese-American poet. I also suffer from Post-Partum and Major Depression. I think that a lot of my poems come from a space of what it is like to be in a depressive episode—the pain and isolation, the deep sadness, the experience of the emotional disintegration of reality. There are some depressive days where it feels like a miracle that I have even survived the day. On those days I desperately cling onto habits and patterns as a way of grounding me and keeping me present, thus alive.
How and when do you know an idea is worth exploring?
I don’t know.
Though place is never explicitly mentioned in these poems, there’s a recurring emphasis on the idea of “authenticity.” I keep coming back to the line “Clarity is a moment of madness unravelling in real time in a public space”—that implicit sense of audience reminds me so much of New York. How does setting play into your work?
I am drawn to this idea of seeing and being seen in public. I think all of my poems are set in an astral plane that is informed by my current setting, which is New York City.
Does seeing and being seen feel like a reintegration of reality?
Yes! You become aware of your own body again.
I love when people pop in throughout the collection. Each iteration of this feels organic, like the door is left open for the outside to wander in—I’m thinking of Frankie in “No Rain No Rain”; Cindy in “Like It Never Happened”; Senna in “Senna loves her car seat more than she loves trees”; Jules in “Some Facts About Myself”. Is using real names a conscious decision for you? I’m especially interested in the moments you choose to say “my daughter” as opposed to “Senna.”
Yes, using names helps ground my poems. It also pays homage or recognizes the people who helped make them. When I write often get lost in abstract images and ideas to the point where it feels like I am floating away from myself. These people—Frankie, Cindy, Jules, and my daughter, Senna—tether me to earth.
As for deciding whether to use “my daughter” versus “Senna,” I think “my daughter” feels more symbolic in the sense where it can either refer to both to my kids as well as myself, or an abstract idea that has no name. When I say “Senna” I feel like I am writing specifically writing about eldest kid, Senna.
Let’s talk about the Lost Haikus, which are interspersed throughout the collection—how are they lost? What inspired you to sequence them as section breaks throughout the book?
I wrote these haikus over the period of 5 years. I call them lost because they were saved on various drives on my computer–never existing together in one coherent place, and never at home within a larger body of work. I also refer to them as “lost” because they have a different energy from my longer poems. My friend and poet, Emily Hunt had the idea of interspersing them throughout the book. Instead of leaving them as one huge hunk at the end of the book (which was my original ordering), I felt like they would have more breathing room when broken up across sections. I see my haikus as these mini-meditations, intentionally choreographed throughout the collection. Each haiku feels like the equivalent of pausing to take a deep breath.
In “Bath”, you write “The internet is/ a place to live your fiction/ in a heart-shaped tub”—there’s a sense of implied luxury here, in the variants of the self the internet can afford and encourage. How do you feel your online and real-life identities differ or converge?
I don’t feel like there is much difference between my online and real-life identities. However, there is something luxurious and fearless about being faceless, or about being invisible. It’s like, it’s not you who is really talking, but another version of myself that is still my actual self, if that makes sense. I have noticed my online identity growing more honest, due to the pandemic and limited amount of time with having two young children. It has been one of the few ways I feel connected to other like-minded people.
How does visual art influence your poetics? How deliberate are your choices of form that you work within —couplets, haikus, free-verse, collage? Is this often dictated by the material or the course of the day itself?
I love looking at visual art and find myself writing little nuggets of description after looking at art that speaks to me. These nuggets often offer a starting point for a new poem. In regard to my form, I find that my “choices” are usually dictated by the material. I also don’t think these “choices” are deliberate, inasmuch as intuitive turns, like an improvisational dance move. At a certain point in the process of working on a poem or a collage, it starts to develop a shape-shifting flow that eventually morphs into its final form. It also depends on how much breathing room the content requires.
When did you start writing poetry?
In middle school after listening and reading to lyrics to Hole’s Celebrity Skin on repeat.
I love that! Celebrity Skin had a similar effect on me. Courtney Love cites the work of T.S. Eliot as an influence for the record—she re-read The Waste Land while writing most of the songs on it.
Are there any artists or records that you find creatively stimulating today? Music that makes you feel like writing?
Oh, I did not know that about Love’s relationship with Eliot! I got a T.S. Eliot line tattoo when I was a teenager. I was so emo.
I generally don’t listen to music when I’m writing my poems, but when it is on, it’s usually ambient/electronic. I undergo regular ketamine therapy to treat my depression and always bring my own music playlist. I find these sessions to be very “creatively stimulating” and I think the playlists are a contributing factor. My current favorite artists to listen to: Julianna Barwick, Ana Roxanne, Sea Oleena, and Grouper.
The title of this collection comes from a Diane Arbus line, quoted from Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow—what drew you to this line in particular?
Diane Arbus used this quote when describing her depression and disintegrating marriage to Allen Arbus. She likened her acceptance of these life facts to a lump in her throat that must be swallowed. The joy (of the lump being gone) and terror (what will happen now that it has been digested in my system) are both in the swallowing. For several health reasons, I have to swallow multiple pills at the end of the day. At least once a week, one of the pills will get stuck like a lump in my throat causing an immense amount of discomfort. I dream of what it will be like to not have to take pills every day, but I also acknowledge that these pills—thanks to big pharma—are to “help” to keep me alive.
Are you working on poetry constantly, or do you alternate between creative spells and moments of respite and reinvigoration?
I alternate between creative spells and moments of respite and reinvigoration. Generally, after I have released a book, I take a little time to recharge by reading books, looking at art, and in general, taking it easy.
What are some books you read and loved recently?
The Betweens by Cynthia Arrieu-King
Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon (translated by Don Mee Choi)
Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong)
Romance or the End by Elaine Kahn
Lastly, are there any independent bookstores you’d like to recommend to our readers?
The Joy and Terror are Both in the Swallowing is out now from After Hours Editions. Purchase a copy here.