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Author Mon Mar 24 2014

"How I Write..." with Cathy Linh Che

cathylinh.jpgPoets & Writers recently helped organize the Barry Gifford reading for Story Week at Columbia College. After hearing Barry speak, I wanted to find out who it was on the East Coast who had made the event happen. Who was "Poets & Writers"?

In my search, I found Program Associate Cathy Linh Che. I read some of her poetry online; "Doc, there was a hand" and "Split" I realized quickly I wasn't tracking down an administrator, but a poet.

She was in the lunch line when I called.

How do you write? Is there a place, a narrative you have to follow, some inspiration that motivates you?

When I was working on my book, I had a fellowship with Poets & Writers in Los Angeles, which enabled me to be very productive. The fellowship was part-time and I was staying with my family, so I was able to do daily writing and revision.

At that point, I'd decided I was interested in poetry that was more documentary in nature. I was also very interested in the ways that psychologists talked about sexual violation and childhood sexual molestation.

I read Martha Collins' Blue Front. I read Transforming a Rape Culture. I read Freud and Maslow and Foucault. My writing comes from my reading; but also, my reading comes from my writing.

Of course.

I write most successfully in bed or on the subway. I'm not much of a desk writer, though I do get a lot of peripheral work done at a desk. Applying to residences, applying to grants - those sorts of things I do well at a desk. (Laughs.) Actual creative writing happens most often in bed or on the subway.

I've also found that the most productive times in my life have been when I've attended residencies and workshops.

Kind of formalizing the process in some way.

Yes. It's important to have time and space specifically allocated for writing.

Do you feel like writing in those situations holds the writer accountable? It sounds like you don't have trouble with follow-through, but I know a lot of writers who do.

I definitely have trouble with follow-through!

(Cathy laughs)

I often set up things to hold me accountable. I tend to be somebody who, if I have time, and especially if I have momentum, can generate every day. But if I don't, I might go weeks without writing a single thing.

Currently, my difficulty is finishing poems; typing them up, revising them, and deciding which are worthwhile. That is difficult for me.


And usually anything that holds me accountable helps me finish. I build in accountability, even if it's just sending poems to a friend.

When I was just starting to put my manuscript together, I gathered four friends who were also assembling manuscripts. We met once a week and workshopped a different person's manuscript. It was wonderful. We helped each other take the first steps toward shaping the work in some way.

This was in New York?

Yes, this was in New York. I went to New York University for my MFA program. We have a close-knit community.

That's wonderful. I'm a part of a similar weekly get-together. We make a curry bowl, we sit down at a big table.

That's wonderful.

When did you begin? Was it always poems?

I started writing in middle school and high school. My high school offered beginning and advanced creative writing courses. There was a fiction unit and a poetry unit, but I don't think my fiction was particularly... good. On the other hand, I always "got" poetry. Even when it didn't make sense, it made sense. Despite the mysteriousness of some of my favorite poems, something about the language or the image or the emotion was always comprehensible to me.

I have a hard time writing in other genres. I'm trying to write an essay right now and it's the hardest thing in the world. (Laughs.) I love essays, I love fiction - but...

Does the form and the structure feel more imposing than poetry? Does it feel more arbitrary?

The form and structure of essays and fiction definitely don't feel arbitrary. They do feel imposing, though. With fiction, there are so many skills one must learn in order to build a narrative; you have to create characters, you have to move characters through time, which feels extraordinarily daunting to me.

What comes easiest to me is imagery. However, in an essay, an image isn't enough; there needs to be an expository element, a thesis, and ideas that have developed, challenged and complicated. It feels like a structure that I am less convinced I'm able to undertake. It's challenging, but I'm still trying.

I'm very interested in taking Split, the book that is going to be published soon, and writing it out, maximally. In poetry, there are gaps that the reader fills in, and I'm interested in stuffing as much into those gaps as possible. An essay seems to me to be an interesting way to say it all, and more.

So your essay is autobiographical as well?

No, the essay is more idea-based. I am exploring ideas on confession and trauma. I'm interested in taking the concepts and images present in my writing and pushing them outward.

That's wonderful!

(Laughs) Thank you.

It is, though! It is! I think a poetic understanding of trauma is one of the more valuable understandings of trauma, for people who have been through traumatic experiences.

That makes perfect sense to me.

Because it is so intangible and confusing and confession has so much to do with guilt whether you're confessing something that you've done or something that has been done to you.

Absolutely. I'm very interested in confession. You have confessional poetry, confession in the church. Discussing one's past with a therapist is similar to the act of confession, and even writing something down on the page... a type of confession.

Yes. Writing in a journal or in a diary is a kind of confession, too. The relationship between the reader and the person writing something autobiographical also interests me. What does it mean to read this autobiographical text? What role does the reader take on? How is literary analysis like psychoanalysis? There are so many intriguing relationships there.

Something that's personally interesting to me that I see in your work is the building of the myth of an individual family. Everybody has the uncle who died in a car accident--


--that you never met, but you see in photographs or paintings. What do you see your role as in the creation of the myth of your family?

I see myself as a record-keeper. My parents' stories of the Vietnam War are our connection to a country that is no longer our home. In telling the stories, my parents are passing on their culture and identities. It is very important to me to document these familial stories and present them, in order to tell what is our familial story.

Also, my experiences of being sexually abused as a child are simultaneously singular and definitely not. The experiences of my parents, being displaced and damaged by the violence of the Vietnam War, are my own family's experiences but they are also the experiences of an entire nation (Vietnam) and its diaspora, as well as our nation (The United States) which is still at war.

What I'm trying to talk about is writing a very specific story, but one that's also part of an archetype or a pattern.

Much of my collection references Greek mythology and Catholic imagery. For instance, the Sacred Heart shows up in many of my poems. It is an image of someone opening up her garments and revealing an enflamed human heart, encircled in thorns, a sign of divine and human suffering. The trauma is shared so that everyone can see it. In the same way, my family's story and my story is a part of this larger patterning: "This is what trauma looks like;" "This is what suffering looks like;" "This is metamorphosis looks like;" and "This is how one endures."

Kind of creating an emotional vocabulary.


I'm also trying to present the other players in the war: People who have been marginalized, people whose stories haven't been heard. I want to write the mythology of those who have been left out, and I want to be a voice that tells it.

Cathy Linh Che is a Vietnamese American poet from Los Angeles, CA. She has received awards fromThe Asian American Literary Review, The Center for Book Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, Hedgebrook, Kundiman, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's WorkspaceResidency, and Poets & Writers. She is a founding editor of Paperbag.

Her first book, Split, is published by Alice James and available April 14, but is available now for pre-order.

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