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"We Drive in Circuitous Routes": An Interview with Eddie Kim

Eddie Kim received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is a Kundiman fellow from Seattle who served as the inaugural Pacific Northwest Kundiman Regional Chair. He spent two summers as poetry faculty at UVA's Young Writers Workshop and was invited as a poetry guest speaker for the Robinson School for Young Scholars. He is currently experiencing major life changes.

His poem, "In Search of Aliens," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with inteviewer Courtney Flerlage about balance, brontosaurs, and landscape.

How did “In Search of Aliens” get started for you?

My friend and I were on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York, by way of the South. Some of the images formed from observations as we drove out of California. I often find ideas for poems as a passenger, whether in a car or on a bus. There’s something about the rhythm of the road and the freedom to let your mind wander that I find generative. Sometimes it turns into something, sometimes it doesn’t.

I’m interested in the way imagery generates a conversation between wonder and reality in “In Search of Aliens.” As the speaker describes driving through “The corridor East from Los Angeles,” they see, for example, “golden / brontosaurs, but brontosaurs are not real anymore, / demoted by way of Pluto.” Later, the speaker summarizes the drive as “nothing but curiosity and semis accompanying heat,” a line I read as exemplifying the speaker’s relationship to the landscape—driven by a thirst for the spectacular, met with the daunting reminders of reality.  Yet in the final lines of the poem, it is the speaker’s search, itself, that becomes spectacular; the speaker shares, “I’ve been using sesame oil for sunscreen / and now my arms are the color of Mars.” The speaker finds themselves promoted to a planet-like status as the speaker drives on in “circuitous routes.” This wonder that drives the poem remains urgent and real, even as the images of the poem—dinosaurs, “Mech Warriors,” planets—are fantastic. Could you share a bit about this balance—how do you craft images of wonder in such a measured way?  

My father had also recently passed away, and this was the first time I’d driven cross-country. I wanted to do something that made me feel alive and wild, perhaps even reckless or self-destructive. I was completely out of balance in my life, and I wanted to do something that pushed the thought of loss out of my mind. Which, I imagine, is quite common. But even when we do these things, I think things are always there to remind us of reality. Sometimes it’s a semi passing by; sometimes it’s unbearable heat. At the time, I wanted to get lost in wonder and possibility, but something would always bring me back, be it fear, insecurity, or uncertainty. I don’t think I was conscious of it while writing the poem, but it was an internal struggle that I was dealing with, a conversation I was certainly having within: a need for balance, a desire to be wild/self-destructive, and questioning everything in-between. I couldn’t say I was cognizant of the balance you point out in the poem as I was writing it, but I was certainly craving it on some level. Everything felt out of whack and this poem was perhaps one place I could begin to find that balance. Even a poem can crave some semblance of balance. If the images are only fantastical, it can lose its humanity. If the images are too grounded, it can lose its sense of exploration and wonder.  A poem is a place where reality and wonder can reside together, where they can become interchangeable. We were driving through Roswell as I was working on the poem, which seemed very appropriate. The ostensibly fantastical notion of aliens surrounded by a town seemingly built on the commercialization of that possibility.

In the last line of the second stanza, after mentioning Pluto as having been “demoted,” the speaker concludes, “All facts / from my childhood are suspect.” This declaration resonates against the stanza that follows, in which the speaker remembers a teacher’s trick for spelling the word “deserts” with “one less S” because “It’s not something you want more of.” I find this moment both clarifying and complicating: the same “errors” of the speaker’s landscape—those brontosaurs, for instance—that inspire the speaker to doubt certainty also call into question—by way of juxtaposition—this assumption that the speaker’s landscape is undesirable. The logic feels wonderfully paradoxical, an expression of the complications of caring for—and questioning—a familiar landscape. At what point in your process did this memory enter the poem? Has the poem ever existed without it? 

Thank you so much, that is very kind of you to say. Yes, the initial draft of the poem did not include the memory of the teacher. The memory occurred to me after a sort of amalgamation of thoughts as I was going over the poem. At that point, I’d mostly lived closer to coast or somewhat coastal areas, be it Seattle or Kotzebue. When I lived in Fairbanks, it was the most land-locked I had been, and I regularly craved for ocean smells and seagulls. I was used to being near water, so I’d never thought of a desert as someplace I’d find connection with or even want to visit necessarily. So, in thinking about this, and then going over the poem, the brontosaurs and desert we were driving through brought back that memory. I was questioning all those things we learn and take on as our own knowledge, as simple facts that make up who we are and often neglect to question. Brontosaurs were very real to me as a kid, and if they cease to be, everything is open for questioning, myself included, as well as how I see the world and my place in it.

What are you reading right now that you’d recommend?

Most recently, I’ve been reading poems by Jane Wong, Michelle Peñaloza, and Dan Lau. I am inspired by their work.

What project(s) do you have in the works?

I am currently working on a poetry manuscript that explores the wonders and myths we create for ourselves and miss on a daily basis. They span various experiences from childhood to present, which sounds kind of lame when I word it like that, but I more and more like the notion of time being a figment, of past, present, and future happening simultaneously. In which case, one might argue that the stories that make up our lives and feel the need to share, regardless of when they happened, are always relevant because they’re happening now. At the very least, they’re certainly happening in my head.

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