The Poetry Project

Language As Rebirth

Danny Thanh Nguyen Interviews Monica Sok

On the afternoon of May 20, 2020, I interviewed Monica Sok via video-call to discuss her debut full-length poetry collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs On, recently released by Copper Canyon Press right before the national shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic. Monica is a 2018-2020 Stegner Fellow and the daughter of former Cambodian refugees.

Danny Thanh Nguyen: Coincidentally, you and I are speaking today on Cambodia's National Day of Remembrance of the genocide your parents survived, which you write about in A Nail the Evening Hangs On. How are you feeling about this today?

MS: I learned that the National Day of Remembrance used to be called the “National Day of Hatred” in 1984, a mistranslation in English. A more accurate translation would be “Day of Tying Anger” or “Day of Maintained Rage”—which makes a huge difference and is so much more nuanced than “hatred.” There's a kind of remembrance in anger or rage, whereas hatred feels so final. Cambodian people are always trying to find a way to heal and remember what happened, but it makes me think about what memory does during a pandemic as well.

DTN: Yeah, you're in a really interesting position: your book came out at the end of February as the pandemic was starting to spread stateside. Could you speak to the challenges of releasing a book during a pandemic?

MS: Well, my book tour was cancelled and that meant that I wasn't going to be able to go to New York City where I grew a lot as a poet. I'm very bummed out about that. But I understand, beyond this pandemic, the book has a life of its own and I'm holding onto the book’s journey in this time and space. There have been a lot of kind messages that Cambodian American youth have written to me, a lot of folks posting on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, on social media, letting me know a sliver of the impact of the book. It doesn't replace meeting people in person and being in conversation with them, but I do think that my poetry has brought me to different communities. And at the same time, I'm grieving my life before the pandemic, I'm grieving lost loved ones too. It's a strange time to be both celebrating the book and grieving and not quite knowing the future of this work.

DTN: You mentioned New York as the place where you grew as a poet. Will you tell me more about that?

MS: Yeah, I was at NYU as a graduate student in the creative writing program, learning with teachers like Sharon Olds and Yusef Komunyakaa, whom I feel so close to as a poet. New York City energized me. What I miss is that there was always a reading happening almost every single night and there were always poets hanging out. I really miss the whole arts scene there, everything stimulated my imagination and it also distracted me sometimes from writing on the page, but I really pushed myself to work towards my chapbook, Year Zero. Some of the poems from Year Zero made their way into ANTEHO. Now I live in Oakland and this is also a significant time in my life: I finished the book here in Oakland and grew a lot here as a poet as well. It's a continuous journey.

DTN: You're immersed in a lot of social causes in the Bay, particularly with the Cambodian American refugee community. You taught at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI), you've been doing direct action protesting ICE, all while completing your manuscript. Could you speak to any cross-pollination that happened between your residency at Stanford, your activism, and finishing your book?

MS: Thank you for asking that question. I noticed that my poems were becoming a lot more peopled after I was taking action alongside Asian Prisoner Support Committee and CERI in front of San Francisco's ICE Detention Center. It has been an incredible experience to witness intergenerational activism: you would have mothers and aunties whose sons/nephews were being detained, children of [detainees], and freed people who had been formally detained—they were advocating and speaking at City Council for those who were still inside. Witnessing all of that certainly affected my creative process and I was able to break open some of these poems. In many ways, when I'm standing up to imperialism or any kind of oppression in the book, I'm also centering the second generation. I'm centering children and the imagination of children. So that's something I realized I was doing in the midst of working with my community in Oakland, while also working in the institution of Stanford University.

DTN: Thank you for sharing that with me. As a fellow writer of Southeast Asian descent, I feel that our literature has a tendency to be framed by publishers and audiences to be around trauma porn. What are the challenges around writing about that stuff and not letting it take over? Or maybe, how do you acknowledge this history while also forging something fresh and new?

MS: Oh, that's such a huge problem. I'm not so much in a hurry to get away from the narrative around genocide, but I am here to reclaim that narrative as a descendant of Khmer people and survivors. I'm writing about the genocide, but I'm writing more about the inheritance of that trauma. There are many persona poems in this book. I had to give myself the permission to write the stories and I went into myth-making, tried to mythologize my family's narratives. There's a multiplicity of voices—something I never grew up with. I grew up with familial silence, so that also influenced the structure of the book and why there are so many personas, unnamed until the very end where I close with the poem “Here Is Your Name.” It’s important to talk about silence too. The poems came out of silence.

DTN: I noticed the world-building in your collection. Poems like “Sestina” has a collective "we" voice; poems like “The Radio Host Goes into Hiding” and “The Radio Brings News” and “I Am Rachana” follow several characters in the camps; a grandmother character enters with “Weaver” and returns in “Ode to the Loom.” We get voices and stories of many different people, which is such a hallmark of Southeast Asian culture, an inversion of American individualism. What is the importance to you of writing between the communal voice and the individual voice?

MS: I kept in mind that I was writing towards a collective history, that it wasn't just something my family went through, but that every single Cambodian person's family had been through. There are so many accounts of Cambodians who had left the country before the Khmer Rouge regime takeover, but even they still had people who were left behind. I think about that displacement throughout the entire book. When you enter Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum, you are looking at [walls of photos of] people who were executed there. So it's almost impossible to just think about myself and my experience, or my parents’ experiences, or my grandparents’ experiences—I think about every single person who had been affected by the genocide and the war. So, yes, I do think you're right to say that it's such a Southeast Asian trait to gather collectively, especially in remembrance. Traces of individualism exist in my collection, too, when I think about the way I negotiate being a Cambodian American woman, someone who is in diaspora, someone who is writing in English and distanced from my language. In my poem “Americans Dancing in the Heart of Darkness” I write, “The Americans hate me and I hate them, / but they’re the only students with me and maybe I’m American too.” I've always been really conflicted about that hyphenated “Cambodian American” identity, but I also acknowledge this privilege I have as an American when I go to Cambodia.

DTN: I'm glad you mentioned “Americans Dancing in the Heart of Darkness” and that couplet which exemplifies W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness. What I appreciate about that poem is how you start off with this image of Americans in Cambodia, but as the poem evolves it sidelines them and instead re-centers Cambodian characters. We enter a nightclub to see Khmer boys dancing, “Khmer women making money,” and the last two stanzas are filled with family members calling from all over. Could you talk about how this book performs the act of reclaiming space?

MS: I'm so happy that you suggested that. Those last stanzas in “Americans Dancing” is about reclaiming space. In that poem there's such a theme of accountability and the entire book is also allowing me, as a speaker, to implicate herself. Writing these poems is really about creating space to tell my history and what my experience is, what my family's experience is, because in so many cases where I’ve read about Cambodia, it was not written by a Cambodian person. So I want to center those voices. Those phone calls at the end of “Americans Dancing” really signifies tenderness and care—and that is a way of reclaiming space too.

DTN: I think a typical “American/White gaze” upon work like yours might try to call it “survival literature” or “poetry of resilience," but I read an urgent hopefulness in your poetics. We see this in your juxtapositions, like in “The Death of Pol Pot” which contrasts the image of this genocidal frail old man dying in a bed against the image of a child playing make-believe with her brother. Likewise, “Tuol Sleng” takes place in a museum that used to be a death camp and was a school before that, and your poem transforms it back into a school. I feel that your work is more about the poetics of thriving.

MS: It means a lot to me for you to say the word thrive. You mentioned poetry of resilience and the White gaze, which is so deeply rooted in trauma porn of survival literature. Thriving is something that I'm still trying to figure out. Also defining what resilience means for myself. I honestly feel this is going to be my lifelong work, to really define and shape what it means to thrive through language. I was teaching an anti-war poetry tutorial at Stanford, and my student and I were trying to understand what is anti-war/anti-imperialist poetry. Does it have to address war? Does it have to speak directly to the oppressor? Can it be a love poem? Can it be about walking down the street and eating ice cream and enjoying myself? That sort of pleasure—even while oppression is absent in the poem but still connected—I think, is also the poetics of thriving.

DTN: The work that you are doing with your students is very timely in terms of politics. It reminds me of the line “rebirth as revenge” in your poem “The Death of Henry Kissinger.” Kissinger is a disembodied voice who never shows up in the piece; instead the poem is about the children born of survivors of his military campaigns. They’re blowing bubbles and flying kites that block bombs and stop submarines. What does it mean to play around with rebirth, this concept of reimagining or reincarnating, in your poetry?

MS: All language is reincarnation, all language is rebirth. I take the words of Henry Kissinger—Nixon's order to drop tons of bombs on Cambodia—and subvert them. I find this empowering and incredibly important to, again, give space to the younger generations in order to push the narrative beyond survival literature. I witnessed my parents, I witnessed my aunts and uncles, and they're trying to survive even though they have already survived. I talk a little bit about the terrible things my mother experienced as a child in “The Woman Who Was Small, Not Because the World Expanded”, which is about taking care of her and a kind of rebirth that has to happen intergenerationally, where sometimes the younger generation has to take care of the older generation, when you have a relative who has experienced such brutality. How do you understand it through familial silence? Especially while trying to live in a country like America? That's something that I may always continue writing about. The poems that I feel are most powerful have to do with making something new. It has to do with subverting language. It has to do with subverting history. It has to do with breaking open something old and making something new out of it. I think that's when poems are most powerful and most resonant.

DTN: Regarding rebirth and revenge: the wit in ANTEHO that reminds me of Madonna who said, “I think the most controversial thing I have ever done was to stick around,” and Diamanda Galás who said, “My voice was given to me as an instrument of inspiration for my friends and a tool in the torture and destruction of my enemies.” I think your poems can sometimes act as defensive shields and as weapons.

MS: I hope my language is the kind of weapon that disarms other weapons. Not to cause any more harm, but to take away weapons, break down walls. It goes along with that tenderness that I'm talking about. Earlier, we were talking about the Day of Tying Anger or the Day of Maintained Rage: I think that anger and rage are a lot more resonant with me than hatred. I mean, when you think of a weapon you can easily think of hatred, violence, of inflicting harm, bloodshed. But I'm thinking about ways that I can stay angry in this language, acknowledge the harm that was caused, and hold those who are responsible accountable. Language is disarming because you can totally change somebody's mind about history. And you can also weaponize silence and call that love. In “The Death of Pol Pot,” the mother is shooing away the child so that she doesn't know about Pol Pot, she's not included in that conversation, and then she's just playing the villain in another section of that poem and creating her own reality, in her own imagination. So, I think about silence and somehow that is even a part of weaponizing language.

DTN: Reminds me of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

MS: Yeah, the healer archetype is really interesting to me. Maybe language is about giving weapons to the right people too. Maybe it's also giving weapons to people who didn't have weapons before.

DTN: You spoke about intergenerationality being a huge part of this collection. The cover art for ANTEHO are bright silks made by your grandmother, a master weaver. The children in your poems transform things with their imagination, they cause the death of warmongers. Why are children really important to your poetics?

MS: I'm going to answer this question by talking about my grandfather first. I wrote about him in “Yearning”, an early poem in my chapbook Year Zero. On his deathbed he gave my mother a sweet potato and he gave her sister a cassava. I think about how this man worked in the camps with my grandmother, guiding their entire family through a genocide, and that act of love, of giving that sweet potato and cassava, vegetables that can grow. This is an image that appears at the end of “The Radio Host Goes Into Hiding”—the speaker is calling you to look for the girl who planted a sweet potato in the ground. That is survival. My mother is that child. So yes, children are central to my poetics. But also sometimes elders can be critical of the younger generations. They call us The Forgetful Ones––we forget our language, our culture––but I think we're sometimes The Forgotten Ones: falling through the cracks in the system. Cambodian youths drop out of high school at high rates, are involved in gang violence, and are most impacted by family members who are at risk of deportation. When we are telling our own stories and affirming each other, that's when we learn to feel safe because we feel seen. And that's where healing begins and intergenerational work truly happens.

DTN: How has the process of writing ANTEHO changed you?

MS: I was able to become a lot more gentle with myself. I learned that I was enough—that's not something that I have been told growing up, especially as a Cambodian girl growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I never saw myself in literature, in any kind of art. So, I think that writing this book really helped me affirm myself and my experience. I'm able to see my family. But I can say that, through what I created, I'm able to see myself and feel reflected, finally.

DTN: One of the challenges of authoring a book is that you’ve changed in the time that it took to put it out in the world. I'm curious about your current creative projects and what can audiences look forward to seeing from you in the near future after they read ANTEHO?

MS: My newer poems are more personal, and I'm exploring resentment and intimacy and my own dailiness as a woman of color in America. I ask, “What does it mean to feel safe, seen, and heard all at once and all the time?” because I don't think that I've ever experienced that. I'm not sure how this time will influence the way that I write. I am sheltering-in-place alone in Oakland and meeting with friends of mine at a distance every now and then. Creating right now is difficult. I realize how much I need people while I'm creating, I need that kind of pushback or feedback and learning experiences with others. So this might be a really hermetic period of my writing life and I totally welcome that for now.

#261 — Summer 2020