The Poetry Project

“How can I make a movie of your life if there’s no information about it?”: An Interview with Amy Ching-Yan Lam

Kirby Chen Mages

I first met Amy through our mutual friend HaeAhn Woo Kwon. I don’t know how HaeAhn met Amy, but I’m sure it was also through one of their mutual friends. What beautiful things can emerge through friendship. It is this moving through that gets us somewhere closer. In this conversation, in which Amy and I met on Zoom, through the screen, I had the sensation that we were sitting on clouds, drifting.

Our conversation moved through the realms of memory, associative thought, family, and collectivity, all while being anchored by Amy’s beautiful Baby Book. I’ve found that I cannot speak of Baby Book without calling it “beautiful Baby Book.” There is something beautiful about a baby. There is something beautiful about a book. There is something doubly beautiful about Amy’s Baby Book.

—Kirby Chen Mages

KIRBY CHEN MAGES: I read that the first inspiration for Baby Book came from you writing a piece for an art exhibition catalog. Did you always know that you wanted to have a physical book of poetry?

AMY CHING-YAN LAM: Not at all. It was a surprise for me when I got the invitation to write something, that it came out in this way. And it was so fun. I think that’s what I really loved about discovering writing again. I found so much pleasure and joy in doing it. Through the pandemic and the beginning of 2020, when I was at a residency in London with my former collaborator, John, I was writing a lot. It was a real process of discovery. I had no idea what it was going to be. I was very uncertain that it was poetry, even, but I didn’t want to write essays, and I didn’t want to write stories, either. And so, through the many years of working on the book, I discovered things about form that I didn’t know starting out.

I really didn’t think that it was going to be poetry, but it made sense in terms of the content of the book, which is, in some ways, about my grandmother’s life, and my life, and lots of other people’s lives, where there’s this unknown portion of it, or my grandmother telling me about her life, but not being able to articulate or explain these massive things. In the book, she tells me, “I had 20 brothers and sisters and they all died,” and then there was nothing more she could say about that. That kind of void. She can’t express it, but obviously that’s shaped her life so much, and my life, and my mom’s life. I think that’s why it made sense for the book to be poetry, because there are lots of things that can’t be said, or that exist in absence, or through the connections.

KCM: In terms of form, did you have certain constraints that you were working through or was it more intuitive?

ACL: I had no guidelines. I think that’s why when I first started out, there were so many versions of some of the poems, like “Sunflower Seed,” “Autoicon,” or “Remembrance Day,” but especially “Sunflower Seed.” If I looked at my computer, there would probably be 200 versions of it, because I didn’t know what felt right. Through the process of writing the book, I’ve been able to figure that out more, and so now when I sit down to write, I’m not writing 300 versions of the same thing. But in the beginning, making the book was definitely many different attempts to figure out what felt good.

KCM: I was definitely thinking about family while reading your book the first time around, and coincidentally, I was reading Sophie Lewis’s Abolish the Family upon my second read. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the family can be this kind of horror story premise in some ways.

ACL: [Laughs] I agree. The family’s totally a horror story type of situation, right? It’s like something that you can’t escape. Or, you can, but oftentimes, it’s a question of wanting to escape, but then not totally getting liftoff.

I’ve been working on this other book that’s called Property Journal. It’s a journal that I kept in 2022 of all the times people talked about real estate, but a family story is very present in it, because it’s also the story of my parents retiring and figuring out where they’re going to live, and my sister helping them with that. When I was writing Baby Book, it was a time in my life where I was reckoning with my own relationship with my family—and really facing it, having spent a lot of my life not facing it, trying to escape it, or trying to just ignore it in some ways. That’s what I feel the book is also really composed of, is this part about aging—being in middle life and thinking back on how I’ve ended up where I am, and how formative the family is, for better or worse.

KCM: What does the idea of being baby mean to you? Or what’s the significance of that word?

ACL: For the baby part, it’s definitely a conception of baby as a baby, you know, like a person or being that’s just been born. But why the book is called Baby Book beyond the element of family, is this idea I have of babies coming to know the world through their senses in this very physical way, through putting things in their mouths. That sensorial experience that we’ll never be able to access again. That’s something I really wanted to think about: How do you come to know the world? And it’s really strange, because our experience of the world is like, okay, I’m in this room, I can see it, but the world obviously also consists of so many other things, or so many other histories. That was a big part of the thinking that I was doing when I was writing the book. How do you access knowledge? And how do you access knowledge of things that have happened before you were alive, but that are so important to your being, or that constitute your being? Like, my grandma’s experience, or any part of the history of the land that I’m on. History is a funny word. Because it’s not even history. It’s the context, you know? And how do we come to know that context?

KCM: Can you talk about how food shows up in your poems?

ACL: I think with the food there’s a part of it that relates to the baby and senses, and learning things through your mouth, or feeling in that way. Or, coming to know the world in that way. And then there’s another part of it that’s about resources and the fact that you need food to stay alive, and that you have to pay for it. That’s the way our world is set up. And how does that make any sense? The fact that the natural world is so bountiful, has so much abundance, but there’s so much scarcity that’s enforced. The poem “Land Made of Food” is about that. There’s a previous version of it in my chapbook, The Four Onions, where it’s maybe a bit more explicit, and it talks about the idea of the rich going to live on Mars, where there is no food, and they would bring their own food. It’s based on this medieval idea of the land of Cockaigne, which is a world where everything is food, and if you’re a peasant you dream of this land and it’s this beautiful fantasy. But it’s also portrayed as a place poor people are fantasizing about because they’re so lazy, like, they just want to live in a world where they can pluck hamburgers from the trees, or whatever. It’s more associative for me, but to me it relates to the fact of how we relate to nature. We think it’s something to be extracted from.

I guess there’s also a part that I’m trying to avoid, which is the classic Asian American or Asian Canadian “I connect to my culture through food,” which is a big part of it, and maybe a place that I did start from at the beginning. It’s really important for my family. It’s how we spend time together. It’s one of the only shared interests that we have.

KCM: There are lots of references to different types of classes and therapies in your book. Were you actively doing all of that while you were writing?

ACL: One of the experiences that’s in “Sunflower Seed,” the experience with EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing], was a very important experience. And really, it’s one of the seeds of the book in some ways. I had this experience doing EMDR for the first time, which is a type of therapy. The way that I did it was with binaural sound. The therapist leads you through accessing a traumatic experience, and that really feels like time travel. It was so intense. I never had that experience before where I was like, wow, I really feel like I visited—because that’s what she did, she led me on this experience of visiting a past self. And I had never had that kind of emotional reaction before, or even that feeling. That was really important in terms of what the book is about—reckoning with the family, and coming to face it, and coming to understand it and also have compassion for those experiences. I didn’t really have a project of trying to access memories, but I think that in a way, the writing led me down so many paths that I never would have been able to follow without it.

KCM: There’s a moment where you write about the logical brain and how if you overdevelop it, then you can’t access your memory. I feel like that’s connected to how we access our imaginations too, especially as poets. How do we reach those moments where we’re able to let go of the logic and get into the ripeness of the imagination?

ACL: I thought it was so funny. The fact that you can overdevelop your logical brain. And I feel like it really applies to me, because, yeah, it’s too logical, and I have no memory of things. I feel like a lot of the stories in the book come from things that I overheard or things that I read about. Like, the poem that’s about a woman who sets up a toll, “Iron Pole.” I read that in a book. They were driving in China, and they saw this. This is a small detail in the book, but it really stuck with me. Thinking back on it now, it’s trying to recuperate or collect these details. And that’s mostly my writing process: collecting things and writing them in my notes and then stringing them together. But I like that process of taking a small detail that comes to me through whatever means and then making it into something that’s more mysterious or that reads on an allegorical level instead, and I don’t know exactly what the moral is or anything.

KCM: Your poems sometimes have an indexical quality to them that makes me think of list keeping.

ACL: It goes back to how I write the poems in the first place, which is keeping these notes and then there’s a feeling that I think is associated between them, and then dumping them into a document, and then trying to organize them in some way. And by “organize,” I mean creating some kind of flow between them. So it’s not a list that’s organized by type of thing, necessarily, but it’s like, how do you make leaps between these things that might not be similar, in order to create some kind of feeling, or to convey that feeling of how they’re connected, even if they’re not connected. Or not obviously connected. That’s the main thing for how I write and so maybe that’s also part of the logical brain, because in my daily life, I keep all kinds of lists that are things I must do. And then writing poetry is a different type of list keeping.

KCM: In terms of form within the book, there wasn’t a pattern, necessarily, and there are no consistent formal restraints, but it has a certain flow.

ACL: For me, it’s like, how do I convey these connections? Counterintuitively through the spacing. That’s how it makes sense to me. There are things that don’t belong together. But what happens if I put them closer together? And then there are things that belong together, so what happens if I split them apart more? And just trying to find the rhythm in that.

When I wrote “Movie of My Life,” my grandma passed away very close to the actual date of it, and I knew at the time that I was writing it that it was the end of the book. In a way, it’s obvious. The book begins with my grandma telling me that story about her siblings and saying, “Oh, I know why you’re doing this. You’re gonna make a movie of my life.” And I was like, “How can I make a movie of your life if there’s no information about it?” Like, what? [Laughs.] How am I supposed to do that? So yeah, that’s why it’s the end of the book. And because it’s the end of the book, it made sense for me to use spacing in a slightly different way.

KCM: I recently attended a Don Mee Choi reading where she talked about finishing her trilogy and having to accept that she wanted her books to read like films—that they each had a beginning and end, to a point where, with her third book, she decided to eliminate titles altogether.

ACL: Yeah, that’s really interesting, because I feel like that’s the direction that I’ve been thinking in, too. I’ve been thinking about this book I read by Lewis Freedman that’s called I Want Something Other Than Time. It’s published by UDP, and it’s a small book, but every poem has the same title, which is “I Want Something Other Than Time.” I just really love when the book itself makes sense as a book. As a coherent entity. I really wanted to do that with this book, and I continue to think about how to do that. I’m resistant to the idea of poetry as these short fragments or short, pithy things that you can have on Instagram or whatever.

KCM: Along the lines of resisting certain trends in poetry, which rules are your favorite to break?

ACL: I think it goes back to the question you asked earlier of how I got to writing in the first place. Ever since I was a kid, I really did think, I’m gonna be a writer. I’m so into books. I love books. It’s just the number one thing. My favorite objects, you know, so much affection for them. And then going to grad school and doing an MA in writing and being like, what is this? I totally don’t want to have any part of it. Like, feeling so disillusioned by it, and then ending up somehow having a career in the visual arts, instead. And then coming back to writing and being very grateful for that circuitous path.

In the 10 years after grad school, I did write, but I wrote for performance and it was always collaborative. I really didn’t have a solo writing practice at all. I felt so resistant to it. It was so important to have that break, and to rediscover writing in my own terms and come to it in a totally different way. I didn’t study poetry in my program. I never really felt like it was something that I would do. And so, it’s so cool to really have that experience of doing something new as someone who’s an adult, or of a certain age. It’s something that I always want to convey to people, especially to students who feel like they need to be on the “right path.” It’s not like that, you know? If you have a long, windy path, it’s gonna be more fruitful for you in terms of what your actual creative practices are and why you feel committed to it.

KCM: I was so inspired by your self-organized book tour. It seemed so centered around friendships that you had in all of these different locations. There’s always the life of the book as the object and then what it becomes when you bring it into a collective space. Do all of the people who you read with on tour also have a visual art practice?

ACL: I would say most of them are not only writers. I think that’s generally the type of person that I gravitate towards. For most of the readings I did in the fall, it was people that I invited. It was people that I felt an affinity with. And so, those rooms did feel very warm and connected.

In December, I was invited to do a reading in Toronto, but it was in a very different context. I read the poem “Remembrance Day,” and I introduced it by talking about the assault on Gaza. But the rest of the night was this totally random mix of rock music and other readers, and I felt so discombobulated by it, because there were like eight performers and only two of us brought that context into the room, and everyone else basically ignored it. And that happens in lots of different kinds of public spaces right now. Where it’s like, some people talk about it, some people don’t, and that night, especially because I was performing, I felt so disturbed afterwards. I was just like, “What happened?” It took me a while to get over it—the energy of going up on stage, a huge room, and then saying these things, but then not feeling like they were heard, or not hearing them come back in any way.

KCM: At the reading I did with you in Los Angeles, I was so affected by you being on stage and asking everyone present to say “Free Palestine” altogether. And then asking everyone to say it one more time. I have to say, I haven’t had an experience quite like that since, unless it’s an event explicitly organized around Palestinian liberation and ending the genocide, so I think about that night a lot, in contrast to when I’ve experienced the ignoring of what’s happening, especially within the arts. It’s made me want to attend less and less institutional events.

ACL: In November, before I went on the tour to the UK and Europe, I was really stressed, because I had organized everything myself. You know, doing all that work of emailing people and then I didn’t end up getting a travel grant, but someone I know, who’s a patron, gave me some money so I could cover the flight. It was this feeling of, oh my god, why am I even doing this? Are people gonna come? Like, all the questions that you have when you organize events. So that was the feeling I had going in. I also tried to keep in mind that it’s this immense privilege for me to be able to share my work and the fact that I do have enough resources to squeak by.

I would say that my experience of doing the events with people that I had invited, and whose work I really love, and being able to have conversations with them and relate our different practices together was so powerful. I feel like it was a lesson for me that it’s tough, it’s challenging to do things on your own, and to be a poet and to be poor, and not have access to institutions, or whatever. But there’s also this great benefit in it, which is that, because I organized it, I created the scene, or I was able to, with other people, make the scene for their work and for my work. I feel like the events were very successful in that way. They were very nourishing. That’s the flip side of doing things independently. And I think about that now too, to connect to what we’re saying about the genocide. It’s like, okay, all these institutions are fuckin’ like, masks off. There’s this feeling of, why are we even working for these larger institutions that are so hypocritical? There’s value in doing things on our own, you know?

#276 – Spring 2024