Sound Sews the Poem Together

A Conversation with Brandon Som on Heritage, Identity, and the Versatility of Language

Brandon Som is the author of The Tribute Horse (Nightboat Books), winner of the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the chapbook Babel's Moon (Tupelo Press), winner of the Snowbound Prize. A former fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, he is currently the Anne Newman Sutton Weeks Poet-in-Residence at Westminster College. In the fall, he will be joining the creative writing faculty at the University of California San Diego.


On April 14, 2016, poet Brandon Som visited the Writing House to give a master class and reading for Interlochen creative writing students. During his visit, Interlochen Review editors Nim Holden, Ray Kearns and Sarah Arnett sat down with him to discuss his latest collection, The Tribute Horse, the role of cultural heritage, and the influence of 20th century immigration laws.


Nim Holden: Could you talk a little bit about the differences between writing your chapbook, Babel’s Moon, versus writing your most recent book, The Tribute Horse?


Brandon Som: Sure, yeah that’s a great question.The chapbook came about in a really interesting way. I had this poem, I believe it’s the very first poem in the chapbook, it’s a poem about my grandfather. When he came over from China to the States he eventually opened up his own little grocery store, like a corner store. It had produce and it had meats as well, he had a meat counter, so he butchered these meats. So I had this poem about him being a butcher. I was in a PhD program at the time, taking workshop. And it was a poem in the workshop where it kind of divided people. Some people thought it was a really wonderful poem and other people really didn’t like the poem too much. And I actually took that as a kind of sign that maybe it’s a good place to begin. You know if it’s really dividing people. And so I actually went home and was like, okay, let me put a chapbook together starting with this poem. And that’s how the chapbook came about. I was excited to get it accepted and thrilled when it came out. Tupelo Press did an amazing job.


Moving to the larger project. At the time my mentor, my professor, was like, “So you’re writing a book about your grandfather.” And I actually hadn’t made that connection before, you know, I just thought it was a single poem.  I didn’t realize I was actually maybe working on something more focused on my grandfather. And I remember that moment because I said to her, “I don’t think I’m doing that. Maybe I am doing that?” It’s a good example of the ways in which I think it’s really important to have other readers, because a lot of times we don’t know. It’s harder for us to get a sense of a larger project, it’s harder to get a sense of what we’re actually doing, because we’re so immersed in it. So it’s nice to have other perspectives, you know. So with her perspective I was like, maybe I am. That is when I started to write a little bit about Chinese paper-sons and explore that history.  So in some ways I see the chapbook as a kind of starting point, like a door opening for me to explore the longer history of my grandfather coming to this country.


Ray Kearns: This kind of follows into that, but in your book “The Tribute Horse” you do have all these different themes that come in, like this idea of heritage, the nautical elements, and this use of language. Did these themes come out in a post-realization or did you purposely want to create a cultivation of themes?


Brandon Som:  A lot of it is accident. I think as poets we sometimes think about individual poems as a kind of unit of meaning, but actually assembling poems becomes another exploration into what’s possible. Once you start putting poems together for a book, there becomes this whole other conversation or dialogue. I think when I was putting the manuscript together, a lot of those themes stood out to me. And then as I was positioning poems I was thinking about ways to emphasize those themes, how those themes might resonate.


The other funny thing that your question makes me think about is that many of those poems were drafted at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center out on the Cape in Massachusetts. I had this very privileged, very lucky opportunity to write for seven months out on the Cape. Even though I was writing about my grandfather’s Trans-Pacific crossing, I was really looking out at the Atlantic ocean, so a lot of that ocean imagery is a masquerading in some ways.


NH: I’m curious about how your interest in your family’s heritage and history with Angel Island played into the concepts of identity that you bring up in the book, which you explore with this fascination with language. I was also curious because you mentioned that a lot of these things came up accidentally, but did you see The Tribute Horse as being a sort of flare to signal people to look more into the history, or was it more of a personal exploration?


Brandon Som:  That’s awesome, I love that term signal flare. I definitely did see it was an opportunity to explore this history that not a lot of people know about and especially this history having to do with Chinese exclusion. These laws that were in place from 1882-1943 are really some of the first laws on the books for immigration in this country. These restrictions targeting this specific race and class of people really set in motion the need to enforce those restrictions. So all kinds of bureaucracy, all kinds of paperwork, all kinds of positions, officials, interrogators—these jobs came into place after these laws went on the books.


I was really interested in if these laws—some of the first laws regarding immigration in this country—if these laws were so clearly racist, what does that mean for immigration today? That if this racism is at the ground level that is the foundation of immigration laws in this country, what does it mean for immigration today? In fact, in 2010 our Congress issued a formal apology to Chinese and Chinese-American communities for these laws that were so clearly racist. So I think in many ways, in hindsight, we can see the mistakes we’ve made, and I wanted the book to be able to participate in that kind of hindsight, this kind of recovery of that history. So that, hopefully, when reading the book we can realize how some of the same rhetoric that was happening during the time of the Chinese exclusion looks similar to some of the same rhetoric that’s happening today in our politics with certain politicians, certain people running for president, who are expressing anti-Muslim sentiments. That rhetoric is the same rhetoric and so hopefully the book participates in a conversation where we don’t have to look so far back in hindsight. That we recognize that history and learn from that history. But could you remind me of the first part of your question?


NH: I was curious as to how your interest in your family’s history with Angel Island and your heritage played into the concepts of identity that you explored in this book.


Brandon Som: I was really excited about and interested in exploring the history of paper sons. My grandfather, like many Chinese, in order to undermine these Chinese exclusion laws that prohibited them from coming to this country, used a false last name and a false identity. He was claiming he was the son of a citizen already in the United States. So he exchanged his last name Ong for the last name Som, the name we use today. I was really seeing this kind of borrowing, this citing of false identity as a significant way of thinking about our own identities and how our own identities are often an amalgam, or pastiche, a kind of collage in which we're drawing from a lot of external factors. That identity does not necessarily or solely come from inside, but that identity is in some ways a construction of a lot of different things. So I was seeing my grandfather’s history and this larger paper son phenomenon—where individuals were citing these false identities—I was seeing it as a way of thinking about our own identity. So definitely, that history was important to me.


Sarah Arnett: You obviously did a lot of research on all of these different immigration policies and what the process looked like on Angel Island, which we hear a lot less about than Ellis Island, and I was just wondering what did your research process look like in preparing for this book?


Brandon Som: I like in your question that you talk about Ellis Island, you know there’s a big difference between the way we look at Ellis Island and Angel Island. Most historians agree that Angel Island was constructed on the West Coast to detain and detour and interrogate Chinese immigrants who were trying to come into this country under Chinese exclusion laws. It was a far less welcoming place. As far as research, it’s still there today, and I visited the site.  It’s actually a national park at this point. There are these very small, very beautiful campgrounds, and so I took a ferry across and I camped out there. Then I would go to the museum because the barracks and the immigration station are now a museum. So I would go to the museum to take notes and work on poems. One of the amazing things about this history of the immigration station is that the Chinese, when they were detained there, they carved poems into the walls. I had seen these poems through books and textbooks, but I had never seen them in person. That was really an amazing experience and of course those poems then ended up making their way into my poetry as well. So actually going and visiting this sight was instrumental for me putting this book together.


SA: In your poetry you either reference or use words from many a lot of different languages, including Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Chinese, while also generally including English translations. How do you see this impacting your work and affecting your audience?


Brandon Som: I think a lot of it comes from my own upbringing and heritage. I’m both Chinese-American and Mexican-American, or Chicano. I grew up in these households where Chinese was primarily spoken or Spanish was primarily spoken, and I wasn’t fluent in these languages at all, so I grew up really hearing the music of these languages more so than understanding their meaning. That was really important to me and I think it probably led to me becoming a poet because I spent a lot of time developing a kind of interiority, a kind of inner  life, a kind of meditative life. I think it’s also led to me foregrounding and prioritizing music within my own poetry. I’m really interested in what your question suggests, this kind of multi-lingual experience on the page. I think that’s the experience that so many of us have, and I really see the poem as a space for recording all of these languages and their music.


NH: How do you see genre affecting how the concepts you introduce and history/experiences you explore in The Tribute Horse are portrayed? In other words, how do you see the differences of this being a poetry collection rather than a collection of essays or short stories?


Brandon Som: I think I often approach genre and the need to work in multiple modes in terms of content. I think as writers a lot of times when we're approaching our content or our subjects that we come to some sort of impasse, we come to some sort of block or wall. And I think it is that wall that makes us turn to alternative genres or alternative modes of writing. Let me give you an example: I was talking about how my Chinese grandfather used a false last name to enter the country. This subversive act really shows and demonstrates the ways in which coming into this country he couldn’t speak from any kind of true self; there is a masking and a multiplicity to his identity. And it was a forced multiplicity in the sense that it was his way of coming into the country illegally. To write poems about this subject, it didn’t make sense to me to only write in a lyric mode, which is generally thought of as first person expression. If my grandfather didn’t have access to that first person expression, then it didn't really make sense for me to engage in that first person expression. So just like my grandfather citing and borrowing for his own identity in order to subvert these racist laws, I was interested in the poems not just coming from a self, but that the poems would also borrow and cite and bring together multiple voices on the page. I think that’s what I mean by the content sometimes dictates that you have to go about writing in different ways, and in that way I do think you end up turning to multi-genres, multiple forms, and various modes of writing.


RK: Do you think the visual aspects of your book, The Tribute Horse, are also affected by these concepts? I ask because you use a lot of things like black pages, white accents, and the use of white space within your poems themselves. I was curious if that was being dictated in the same way by the concepts?


Brandon Som: Absolutely. One of the poems in the books is called “Coaching Pages.” When Chinese immigrants came over with by using false identities and false last names they had coaching books, or crib to help them memorize these new identities. When they got to Angel Island and were then interrogated and interviewed, they could recite these memorized identities. They would be practicing these pages as they crossed the Pacific. I was really seeing those little poems on the page as coaching pages. In some ways I was trying to mirror the historical objects that I was writing about.


SA: Within The Tribute Horse, there are several poems written using interesting conceits, such as the homophonic translations in “Oulipo”, the found text in “Bows & Resonators”, and the ekphrastic qualities of The Tribute Horse.  Was this kind of experimentation and variety something that you wanted to do deliberately in this book, or did it happen naturally?


Brandon Som: A little bit of both. Ekphrasis is an exercise I do with my students and is a writing practice that I really enjoy. As a teacher and a writer, I’m really interested in the relationship between subject and object. I’m very interested in the engagement of looking outwards in order to come to some sort of radical insight. There is this connection between what we might call “out sight” and insight, so in that way ekphrasis was a part of my process even before conceiving this book. In some ways the homophonic translation was also accidental. I started writing homophonic poems because I was really interested in thinking about my last name as a kind of sound event. Often, not just in Chinese-American communities, but in all kinds of immigrant communities, you have narratives where names get changed when you cross a border and it’s often a narrative that focuses on the sonic event of transcribing a name into English. So when someone says a name out loud and someone translates that into letters, the name gets changed and transformed in that act of translation or transliteration. I initially started that project with that concept in mind and was thinking what if I did these translations in a similar way.


Then when I was doing research in Angel Island, when I was actually at the museum, I found and saw the Li Po poem I was transliterating, carved into the barrack wall on Angel Island. So that was an accident and it was one of those moments that I think I live for as an artist, and I think a lot of other artists live for too, this moment of affirmation. A lot of times we’re doing these things in our bedroom and in our workspaces, in private, and we don’t know if there’s any point to what we’re doing. That moment when I was at Angel Island and I found that Li Po poem, it was a radical moment of affirmation where I was like, okay, I’m actually doing something that has real resonance here. As I continued with the project I started to hear significance in what I was doing, where I was actually thinking that I was not just listening to these poems and their recitation, but also in some ways listening to the echoes of that wall. To answer your question, I think it’s a little bit of both, both intention as well as accident and chance.       


RK: Do you have any particular technique method for formulating your sonic play? Especially in instances such as page 82 with the poem Confessions, which not only creates multiple readings but also echoes back to the opening poem’s suggestion of a “stow away vowel”?


Brandon Som: Well, the transliterations are definitely a specific technique. Within my own writing practice, I think I am always trying to foreground and prioritize sound on the page. I’m often looking for words within words; I am often working with the assumption that if two words look or in some ways sound the same, that there is a reason for that, and there is something to explore there. I’m a poet who really looks to sound as a way of putting words next to each other. I think of the sounds in an almost textile way, a kind of threading—so that sound sews the poem together for me.


SA: Many of the poems in your book are written in the form of prose poetry, such as “Noche Buena”, “Tilde”, and “A Note on Cuttings.”  In these cases, what made you prefer this format over more traditional lineation patterns?  Can you talk a bit about your decision to include these poems alongside the more traditional formatting of your other poems?


Brandon Som: There’s a couple reason why I turn to prose. One is for narrative, and there’s a definitely a narrative going on in this book. A historical narrative about my grandfather, about paper sons, about the Chinese exclusion laws, about Angel Island and the Angel Island poets. Those narratives are really what holds the book together, and so I see those prose passages coming in and providing narrative at times. I also turn to prose in a kind of essayistic way of writing, one that is exploratory and one that is interested in making connections.


I would say I also turn to prose because I like to have fun with prose. Oftentimes prose gets associated with very conventional texts and conventional ways of reading and writing. Prose is often the way we receive our news, and prose is what we encounter in textbooks. So there is a kind of authority to prose and there is a kind of factualness in some ways to prose, and I like to turn to prose to engage in that factuality. But then I like to do interesting things with that. I like to be able to maybe collage. I like to maybe put sentences together that wouldn’t necessarily go together. I like to get off the beaten path in some ways. So in those prose passages while I’m  foregrounding narrative and essay, I am also interested in directional turns that may not be expected. In those prose passages I am borrowing and quoting passages from other writers. I am also including lyric observations whether that be about sound in the woods or sound on water or about the moon. I’m trying to put all those together in those prose passages. I find that prose is a very supple form that it allows me to put together various discourses, and I like that kind of freedom.


SA: In The Tribute Horse, you have two separate poems that are both titled “Elegy.” Though they have several noticeable similarities, such as the prose poetry formatting, the allusions to Thoreau, and the references to your grandfather, they are still very different and individual poems. What was your intention in giving these two poems the same title?


Brandon Som: In some ways I think they provide signposts along the way to thinking about how the book is coming together as a whole. I think they are both elegies in the sense that they are both elegizing the passing of my grandfather and memorializing his amazing story. I also think they’re elegies which really focus on language and how language is in some ways an elegy for the things that it is describing, for the things that it is referencing. How words may be thought of as being elegies for the things or objects they are engaged with. Or that written words are in some ways elegies for words that have been said aloud. That the word is in some ways like that tombstone that opens up the book, my grandfather’s tombstone. That words in some ways, written words, stand as these elegiac objects for language that was once breathed into existence. One interesting fact about the tombstone at the beginning of the book is that my grandfather’s names— both the paper name Som and his original name Ong—are carved on the gravestone. But Ong is carved in Chinese characters. This passing, this subversive act, continues to follow my grandfather into the grave. If you read Chinese, you are kind of in the know. In some ways that gravestone—its elegy— is a testament to this secret.