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10 Questions for Steven Duong

My friend the songstress says there is no
point in writing nature poems anymore, not
unless you choke the verses with smoke and oil
and insecticides—the Anthropocene
demands a new syntax. These days,
she says, the body is everything
it isn't. The corpse is still a body, but so is
the rapper's discography and the bicameral legislature
—from "Anatomy," Volume 61, Issue 3 (Fall 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In kindergarten, I wrote a short story documenting the adventures of a spider and a scorpion. I forget their names. At the time, I had a pretty loose command of the English language, but what I did know was that this unlikely animal friendship was sure to conclude in death. There was no other way. I forget who stung/bit who first, but both of them met their tragic end. My ESL teacher, Mrs. Rice, took me to the principal’s office so I could read him my story, which was to demonstrate the success of the ESL program.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I read Molly Peacock’s collected poems as a college sophomore and something just clicked inside me. Poetry is play. That is what those poems taught me. To write poetry is to write with purpose and passion, yes, but it also involves taking a language you love and tearing it apart just because. It involves bending its sonics and rhythms and meanings into new, delightful, and sometimes frightening shapes. Poetry requires associative somersaults. You can’t get from point A to point Z+ if you forget that impulse for play. Peacock has this poem, “Conversation,” that captures this impulse in the strangest, most beautiful form.

Other works that have shaped my voice and the way I approach writing include Ruth Madievsky’s Emergency Brake (a personal favorite), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, AJJ’s People Who Eat People Are The Luckiest People of All, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of, Valeria Luiselli’s Story of My Teeth, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Honestly, too many ghosts to name. Ghosts! This is how I like to think of the writers who impel me to write. Regardless of whether they are dead or not, they haunt me.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while, not to swim with dolphins and sharks, but to explore the little-known breeding habits of Caribbean land hermit crabs. Their young grow up at sea. My little brother and I used to keep pet hermit crabs. I have always been so fascinated with things like this. Small things living and eating and breathing in controlled environments—fish tanks and terrariums and zoos, greenhouses and ant farms and bonsai gardens. I think of poems in the same way. We create containers for what we observe and experience, containers that never pretend to be the whole universe, but place such incredible pressure on their contents that they implode and disappear and conjure whole galaxies in their dust, if only just for a second.

What inspired you to write this piece?
The thing with the gecko in this poem happened to me. I was living in Kande Beach, Malawi at the time, working at the local dive center. I read a lot of Tommy Pico, listened to the new Lana Del Rey, and spent a lot of time with animals I never really get to see back home in California. All of this put me in the mood to write about the living things around me, but I didn’t yet know how to wrap the language around them.

One morning, I went to grab some cereal before heading down to the fishing village and SMACK, this strange fleshy weight falls onto my hand from above. Fleshy is the first word that comes to me. The gecko is fleshy when it hits me. Fleshy like flesh. I freak out and drop my corn flakes all over the floor. The gecko hits the ground, gives me the stink-eye, and runs off to tell his friends about me. He looks like a Pokémon, sort of. I have this problem where I filter real live things through the lens of fantasy and science fiction. When I first saw an elephant, I thought of Jurassic Park.

Anyhow, the gecko’s eyes meet mine and I begin to hum. I start writing almost immediately. I’m not sure if it’s a good impulse, this impulse to funnel human experience directly into figurative language as soon as it happens. But it did happen. It always does. I sometimes feel like a bit of a robot, mining my experiences for poetry when I should be processing it in the moment, whatever that means. This poem comes directly out of that cognitive dissonance.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I think of Iowa a lot when I write. I made the drive from Grinnell to Iowa City and back many times during the summer before my senior year, and I always seem to go back to those hours I spent drifting through seemingly endless fields of soy and corn in a borrowed CR-V. When you drive that drive, you’re definitely headed somewhere, but in the relentless stillness of it all, you forget this. It’s a directionless form of direction. It’s a good place.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I wish I was someone who could listen to music with lyrics while I write, but the words tend to jar me out of focus. Lately I have been writing to Explosions in the Sky and Gershwin. However, the music I listen to while not actively writing really does inform my work, sometimes even more so than the poetry and prose I read. Joni Mitchell and Young Thug are big inspirations of mine. They tend to approach lyrics and melody from angles one wouldn’t ordinarily think to even try. They’re the strangest songbirds I know, and I love them. I think picking a weird angle is the best thing you can do when it comes to writing and editing. Tell the truth but tell it slant. I think it was Young Thug who said that first.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
The words don’t seem to come so easily these days. I think I need a new set of rituals. While I was traveling and writing in Southeast Asia this past year, I liked to grab a coffee or tea and just plop myself down in a chair, preferably by a window facing the street. I like the hum of bean grinders, the chatter of aunties in the front and teenagers in the back, all that ambient noise. If you have any ideas for how I can replicate this at home, let me know. Also, any alternatives to caffeine (besides amphetamines)?

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Lately, I have been sending most of my first drafts to my friend Elliott, who just so happens to be a brilliant television writer. I can depend on them to be honest and incisive. We’re working on an animated kid’s TV project together right now, and I feel like as if we are always writing towards the same star in the sky, if that makes sense. It’s important to have someone who knows where you’re coming from and where you want to go.

We’re both writers of color, and when we were younger, we explicitly wrote our poems with white audiences in mind. We knew what white people wanted to hear, and that’s what we wrote. We made our suffering into spectacle. It was messed up. It was also formative. We both know how hard it can be to stay true to ourselves as writers in the world we live in. We have to push each other to write the things that matter, first and foremost, to us.

What are you working on currently?
I’m currently working on a longer fiction project about a boy who badly wants to become an artist, but ends up moving to Vietnam and becoming a gambler on betta fish fights. It’s about art and love and mortal combat. Also, I’m editing a love poem titled “The Gathering,” which is about a match between two experienced Magic the Gathering players. There’s a strange intimacy to this competitive card game, the way the players move in and out of the rhythms of the game and their own personal playing styles. I used to do Chinese martial arts and kickboxing. It’s kind of like that. I think the poem will be a good one.

What are you reading right now?
Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Alicia Mountain’s High Ground Coward (a much-needed reread), Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos’s Pretty Deadly, and a perennial classic, The Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide.


STEVEN DUONG is an American writer and poet. A Thomas J. Watson Fellow, he is currently conducting a yearlong writing project titled “Freshwater Fish and the Poetry of Containment,” which has, so far, taken him to Malawi, China, and Thailand. His poems appear in venues including Pleiades, Passages North, Salt Hill Journal, and The Shallow Ends. He grew up in San Diego, California and studied things in Grinnell, Iowa.

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