Anna Maria Hong talks about the arc of her vocation and the inspiration behind the unique style and form of her poem series Dispellations. Her poems “Dispellations: A Prayer,” “Dispellations: Reverb,” and “Dispellations: Curated Ephemera” appear in Issue 70.2.
Shenandoah: Your undergraduate degree is in philosophy. What made you transition from that to creative writing, and what part of this transition, if any, would you say contributed to your success?
Hong: Philosophy and poetry are very similar endeavors. The things that interested me about philosophy are very similar to the things that interest me about poetry. I feel like both fields allow one to be inquisitive about the world and one’s relation to the world, its many manifestations. And both are ways of looking at the self in the world and everything else with a little bit more attention than we typically allow ourselves while doing other things or just going about our days. Both are ways of asking big questions about time and being human and death and love and all those topics that are really central to both poetry and philosophy. And also, ways of thinking, which is something I’m interested in: how minds work.
I don’t know how my study of philosophy contributed to my success in poetry. For me, there was a lot of time in between, so I don’t think one contributed to the other directly. I had ten years between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Both endeavors are very impractical. Neither of them is going to make any money. They are vocations; they are not careers. Really, they are just things you do for the love of doing them, for the love of inquiring about things in that way.
Shenandoah: We are honored to have featured your writing in our latest issue. What about Shenandoah attracted you, and made you decide to submit to us?
Hong: I’ve been a fan of the journal for a long time, especially under the editorship of Lesley Wheeler. Lesley was actually the one who invited me. I met her at a conference, and we did a panel she was coordinating together, which was a couple years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She invited me and many other people to submit to this special portfolio of poems as spells, in that kind of fantastical mode, which was actually what we presented on at that panel, so I was very happy to get the invitation from her. I’d also worked with Beth Staples previously at Ecotone and knew that she’s a wonderful editor to work with.
Shenandoah: Each of the three Dispellations poems you submitted to us has quite a unique, scattered structure. What does that visual structure have to do with “dispellation,” and how are the poems connected to one another? What is the story you wanted to tell?
Hong: Those are really good questions. So, the secret behind those poems is that I was working with the form bref double, a French form that I’d started working in when I was asked to submit to another journal that was doing a special issue on 14-line forms. The bref double was not a form that I had worked in before, but I really liked working in it. So, for the Dispellations poems that are in Shenandoah, I started with the idea of working in bref double. You have to rhyme a bunch of times, but it’s a bit looser than the sonnet, in my opinion. I don’t think you can tell I was working with the bref double form, when you read the Dispellations poems. Only the ghost of the form remains in them, and I intentionally worked with, as you noticed, the indentation and the spacing so that the poems seem very wide open.
The lineation and white spaces are more driven by breath than anything else. To me, the visual look of the poems and the indentation and spacing on the page were essential to how I wanted the poems to be heard or read. They should feel kind of open, a little bit blown apart. Instead of the words falling where they normally would in a sentence, one right after the other, there’s a lot more space between little phrases. I was, I think, trying to capture this feeling of things feeling a little disrupted, like they’d exploded. I did draft them at the beginning of the pandemic, spring 2020. We had just all got into some sort of quarantine, and we were isolating from everybody else, and there was so much fear, so much uncertainty. I think some of that feeling worked its way into the poems. They are all invocations or prayers. They are all working with some kind of spirituality, with an idea of poems as invocations of spirit, and hopefully hopefulness [laughs] tapping into that spirit as positive in itself.
Shenandoah: What are some of the works/milestones that you are most proud of and why?
Hong: The thing that I’m most proud of in writing is that I just persist. I have three recent books, and I’m actually proud of all of them [laughs]. I had two published in 2018 and one published in 2020. However, I didn’t write them in the last three to four years; I actually wrote them over fifteen years, which I think is a normal pace of writing books, one every four to five years.
I’m so proud that I wrote Age of Glass and that I kept going, because it took me fourteen years to get it out into the world as a collection. I drafted those sonnets for over seven years, and then I had a ton of poems, and I ended up drafting over 300 sonnets. That’s way too long for a collection, and initially I didn’t know what to do with this mass of sonnets; I kept trying to put them together until I finally got some good advice that enabled me to winnow and order the poems into a collection. But, while I was writing the sonnets and while I kept getting rejections from tons of publishers, I kept going, and I also wrote the novella, H & G. That came together very quickly, I was at residencies in Europe, and I drafted it for about half a year, much faster than the sonnets. And then Fablesque came after that, but I was also writing it at the same time that I was trying to get H & G and Age of Glass published.
Shenandoah: Your first poetry collection, Age of Glass, was inspired by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka’s 19th-century glass sculptures, correct? How would you connect these sculptures to the poetry that the book contains, and the messages the poems convey? Was your main focus the beauty or the brittleness of the glass sculptures, or perhaps something else entirely?
Hong: The Blaschka sculptures are featured on the cover, but they did not inspire the whole collection. They inspired some of the writing of the collection, as did other works of glass by visual artists. The reason I put the Blaschka image on the cover is that I am a huge fan of their work. They were father and son glass sculptors but were not making their sculptures purely as art; they were for science. They made models of flora and fauna for scientists to work with for their studies. This was during the 19th century, before photography was invoked to document animals and plants. But they are incredibly beautiful, all of the sculptures. There’s a kind of extraordinary craft. And they made thousands and thousands of them so there’s also an astonishing productivity. To me, those works have a kind of uncanniness about them because the craftsmanship is so dazzling, and I do think there’s a similarity between that and writing sonnets because sonnets are so rigorous. I like virtuosity in poetry and in visual art, that ability to dazzle with skill.
I had a lot of fun in just playing around with the form throughout Age of Glass and pushing the form and letting it push me back and letting it push my language. Part of the reason why it took me so long to write those poems was because I had to teach myself how to write a sonnet. I didn’t really know the sonnet when I started; I did after six years of writing them. Most of the poems that made it into the collection were written in that seventh year because, finally, I knew what I was doing. I really knew the form inside and out, and I felt like I could do things like push it and stretch it to serve my own means and also write with more fluidity within the traditional boundaries. It’s like learning music: you have to practice and practice and practice until it’s easier. It’s also like learning a language: once you have it, you have it.
Shenandoah: In your second poetry collection Fablesque there is a series, “Heliconius Melpomene” that deals with a father-to-be’s escape from the tyranny of North Korea and how he hides and disassociates from his own identity in the meantime. How is that tied to the part of the collection that deals with misogyny and childhood trauma, and why did you choose to convey these stories through fairytales or mythological creatures? What made you choose and connect all these themes together?
Hong: Those are all good questions too. “Heliconius Melpomene” opens the collection and is a lyric essay. I would say it’s more of an essay than a poem, although it starts as a poem and moves back and forth; it’s kind of a hybrid piece. I placed that piece first because it sets an emotional theme for the collection, which has to do with trauma and its impact on the rest of one’s life and also the lives of other people. That is a theme that runs through all of my work, definitely my novella, H & G, and also Age of Glass, but it’s really foregrounded in Fablesque. That story is based on a familial story, from my actual life, and throughout Fablesque, I weave familial stories with fairytales, as you noticed, or folktales and myths.
To me, those kinds of tales are very similar. I think the similarity is partly in that you hear familial tales when you are little, and fairytales and myths and folktales are among the first stories that are read to us. Like most writers, I loved books as a little kid, and a lot of those books were fairytale, folktale, or mythology books. I feel like both familial tales and fairytales are in a part of our brains separate from other stories that you read later. It’s not like novels that you read when you are fourteen or older. They actually shape us, because we hear them so early or read them ourselves so early. They form or help form the way we think about language and the way that we think about stories. That particular family story in “Heliconius Melpomene,” it’s a very dramatic story. There’s so much happening that’s life or death; it’s about survival, the way that fairytales and myths often happen, against terrible odds.
Shenandoah: Your novella, H & G, also deals with the remaking of a famous fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. What attracted you so much to this fairytale, and why did you choose to tell Gretel’s story as she grows up?
Hong: Hansel and Gretel really resonated with me and became this kind of horror tale I told over and over again in H & G partly because it’s a very rich tale. And I’m certainly not the only one to retell it. There are many, many versions of Hansel and Gretel out there, including movies and TV shows, but also other recent short stories and novellas. There are several plot points along the way: the kids are kicked out of the father’s house; they have to make their way through the woods; they find the candy house; then, they are almost eaten by the witch, but they defeat the witch, and then they go home in the original story, which is, of course, not what happens in mine.
The children in this story actually have quite a bit of agency: they defeat the witch, which is incredible. Even early on, Hansel leaves the crumbs to find his way home. They are not passive children; they are very active kids. Eventually, they do save themselves by working together. That was very appealing because it’s a tale of two siblings who are not saved by an older person like a hunter but who save themselves. Also, one’s a boy; one’s a girl, which gave me an opportunity to dramatize how gender informs our choices.
Even facing the same threat, eventually, Gretel is the one that saves the day and pushes the witch into the oven. Her brother is more immobilized and unable to react to this terrible new threat. The novella explores what would happen to a character who had to push a witch into an oven in order to survive as a child, who had to make this terrible, terrible choice as a kid, but it was either that or be murdered. Also, what would happen to Hansel? Would these children be able to stay together? In my version, it’s not really psychologically possible for them to go back home—the father’s the one who kicks them out in the beginning, so it just didn’t make sense to me that they went home. That was part of the appeal too: that I could rewrite parts of the story that did not make sense to me. I could change the outcomes.
Shenandoah: Do you have any advice for struggling writers/poets in the beginning of their career?
Hong: I think at the beginning of your career, if you are an undergraduate or in grad school, or even afterward, I think just giving yourself the time to play around and develop your voice is important. Find out what you’re really interested in writing about. I think there are enormous pressures on young writers to perform in certain kinds of predictable ways to, for example, perform identity in certain kinds of ways, and to write certain kinds of poems or stories for a certain kind of response. I think that if you’re interested in writing as an exploration of yourself, then you need to give yourself time to do that. You also want to give yourself the freedom to explore a range of styles and approaches and read voraciously, to see what other people are doing, what really resonates with you. It should be fun. It should always be fun.