To celebrate the publication of Hydra Medusa, Nightboat spring intern Emily Lu Gao (Em) spoke with Brandon Shimoda about dreamscapes, hybridity, and ghosts. Read more below!
Em Gao: Japanese incarceration is a difficult and important topic: one you have aptly returned to with grace, dignity and tenderness. Your book is a hybrid form, weaving together poems, speculative talks, and your dreamscape: what does writing about the topic in a hybrid form do for you? How do you think it differs than solely writing poems/prose?
Brandon Shimoda: Thank you so much for these incredible questions, Em! And for your kind words about my writing on Japanese American incarceration. It’s been difficult to write about—uncomfortable, occasionally mind-numbing, impossible to keep up with, always like I’m saying the same thing over and over, but “grace, dignity, and tenderness” is so affirming, and a big part of my orientation toward it.
Maybe hybridity is the answer to all of that. Hybridity, for me, is, less about form, more about emotions and the process of learning. These things (emotions, learning) are related. I’ve been learning, for example, about JA incarceration since the late 1990s, when I first became truly conscious of it and started asking questions. I was taking an Asian American history class in undergraduate school (1998); the subject came up in Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore. That’s when I interviewed my grandmother for the first time about it. The learning and the questions have, since then, not stopped. But it has not been linear. It has been messy, mercurial, amnesiac, repetitive, disjunctive, seismic, lonely. And yet it has taken me to many places, introduced me to many people, many of whom have become friends, important people in my life. But it has been chaotic. In other words, hybrid. And because writing has been central to that process, the writing has also been hybrid. It’s like how each day or month or year I’m a slightly different person. (Hybridity = curiosity + time.) My emotions are merry-go-round. (Maybe I, a biracial JA, am hybrid.) When thinking about JA incarceration I become angry, bewildered, bored, depressed, inflamed, empowered, in love; each inspires a different approach to writing, form following affection. There is also the need for people’s histories that have been commandeered by narratives of resilience and triumph (etc.)—as has historically been true with JA incarceration—to be rewritten from the perspective of the shadows—nuanced, polylithic, pessimistic, speculative (etc.)—at least from an understanding that “triumph” is not the priority. So much of the work coming out now about JA incarceration (literature, art of every medium—by so many extraordinary people) is hybrid because it is, thanks to the tremendous foundation laid by previous generations, willing to go anywhere and everywhere, and takes, as a given, that it does not need to do or be any one thing. It’s like trying to solve a riddle. You try different approaches, maybe none of them work, but they each introduce something new to the process. Maybe what happens at the end of that long, laborious, love-filled process, is that the subject (which is always and inherently multiform) is able to exist, again, without the anxiety of being approached at all.
Em Gao: The phrase “or give away the one you want” follows the title page in the book. I read this as a possible alternative title. What is the relationship between the title Hydra Medusa and this seven-word phrase? How did you intend for it to service the book?
Brandon Shimoda: Both “Hydra Medusa” and “give away the one you want” appeared to me in dreams—“Hydra Medusa” in a dream about my grandfather, “give away the one you want” in a dream about my grandmother. She said it to me on her deathbed. In the dream, I mean. She’s alive. Although her words have taken on a new meaning because she’s not doing well and might not live much longer. That’s what my aunt told us: that my grandmother has less than a year to live. My mom, my sister, and I visited her a few weeks ago to say Goodbye. She lives alone in a nursing home in the woods west of Baltimore. She didn’t know we were visiting to say Goodbye, although maybe she suspected. (We took her to a Japanese restaurant in a strip mall and she said, “This is the best Japanese food I’ve ever had.” The food was mediocre, barely Japanese. (The first Japanese food I ever had was made by my grandmother.)) “Hydra Medusa” was inscribed on my grandfather’s grave. In the dream, I mean. Vertically, all caps. I thought that by putting it in the book, directly above my grandmother’s words, it would generate a life of its own, breathe that life into my grandmother’s words, and vice versa. Hydra Medusa is the title of the book, but it’s also the sign of that dream—that place and that moment. “Give away the one you want” is, as you said, a possible alternate title, and it’s also the clearest thing my grandmother has said to me in a long time, maybe forever.
Em Gao: Could you share your thought process behind the cover art? Why the mantis? I love how it is composed of botanical elements, making a creepy insect ethereal, majestic, and enchanting.
Brandon Shimoda: The grass mantis is a drawing by one of my favorite artists, Manabu Ikeda. He makes extraordinarily detailed drawings, many of which take years to complete. (There’s a YouTube video of him completing a drawing that took him three years and, when he sees it hanging on the wall for the first time, crying.) His art is also on the cover 0f another book of mine, O Bon, which Litmus Press published in 2011. I felt compelled to return to his vision, and the emotions that go into him sharing it.
Em Gao: A haunting piece of art, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights appears in “[I have not written a single poem this year.]” I enjoyed how the piece delves into what reading poetry can do for the body and soul. Compared to your experience reading poetry, how does reading prose influence you? How does it influence your kaleidoscope?
Brandon Shimoda: I had to reread what I wrote, what I said, about life in the United States being “the equivalent of the Garden of Earthly Delights reproduced on the inside of a kaleidoscope” and about how when I read poetry, the kaleidoscope stops spinning and turns inside-out (pp. 106-107). That’s still true. And other things too. But you asked about prose. Prose is poetry. Maybe not poems, but poetry. I mean, I don’t know what poetry was, or what it was or is supposed to be, if anything, but for me it’s like poems and prose are different phyla of the poetry kingdom, different families of the poetry order. In the piece you mentioned, I also wrote that poetry “embodies, for me, an honest accounting of what it means and what it is to continuously test and sharpen and refresh one’s consciousness inside and against the collapsing eye at the center of the storm of this atrociously incomprehensible world.” First of all, that sentence was definitely written during lockdown. But it makes me think that the difference between poems and prose is a matter of phases (like the phases of the moon) of consciousness—that poems come from one phase, prose from another. But, as with the phases of the moon, the light and the dark are always moving, wrapping around. Another difference, for me, is that although I feel most like a poet when I am reading poems (not writing them), I don’t feel most like a prose writer when I am reading prose, but writing it. There is more distance between me and prose, like the distance between me and a painting, whereas when I’m listening to music, I’m inside the music.
Em Gao: Ghosts of Japanese American ancestors, friends, children, and bodies of water show up in this book. In popular media, ghosts are commonly depicted as entities to fear or exorcise. But you have a much more nuanced and appreciative connection to them. Has your relationship to ghosts changed since finishing this book?
Brandon Shimoda: I wonder if their relationship to me has changed…? Because I often feel like I am the static one, that I am—for lack of a kinder word—the control. No, maybe that is the right word, because ghosts are the refutation of the living having control, certainly being able to wield it. I am much more afraid of the living than I am of the dead, including ghosts. And I am only really afraid of ghosts in relation to how the living deal and refuse to deal with them. Maybe that is how my relationship to ghosts has changed since finishing the book, although I think I believed it before: that it is the living who haunt the dead.
I understand ghosts, or how they are conceived, for the most part, in white western life, to be the invention of power and brutality; that power and brutality need a scapegoat, and ghosts, representing the kind of energy in which so many people do not believe and yet also, contradictorily, fear—they are, in other words, mistreated—are the perfect scapegoat. We fear disrespectfully.
It’s interesting that when some people are asked if they believe in ghosts or if they’ve ever seen a ghost, the answer is laughter or no. The no is often defensive or dismissive, the laughter self-conscious, uncomfortable. The span of being alive, which is not the same as the span of life, is absurdly brief in comparison to the span of being dead, which is the span of life. My relationship to ghosts has changed because I’ve gotten older, so their ubiquitousness—the ubiquitousness of loss, of the energy loss generates, of grief, of abandonment, of disintegration, and the desire to reintegrate, to heal, to become once again whole—is less contestable, or there is no reason to contest it.
Plus, there’d be no poetry, or no poetry I could understand, without them.
Em Gao: In a Literary Hub interview, you talk about the relationship between crying, reading with your daughter, and Japanese incarceration. You write “my daughter learned to walk in that desert, hike in that desert, identify cactus and trees in that desert. She collected acorns and seeds, ‘treasures,’ she calls them.” Considering the desert is a main character (of sorts) in this book, what are two ways your daughter’s birth influences Hydra Medusa?
Brandon Shimoda: In the “Hydra Medusa” dream (p. 138), my daughter, who was a toddler at the time, sat down in front of my grandfather’s grave, or rather the obelisk that had replaced it, and closed her eyes, “as if knowing exactly how to behave,” I wrote. What I realized, in that moment, then outside of the dream, was that everything I might teach my daughter—about death, about her ancestors, about compassion and respect, about anything—she will transform through her own understanding into her own way of being. My relationship to death, in the dream, for example, was formulaic, kind of pathetic: let’s go visit Grandpa’s grave! Her relationship to death was more open, not as tied to the grave. That is what I strive for: to be as easy in the face of death, and in the company of the dead, as my daughter was in the dream. In life too.
During the first several months of the pandemic, we went on many many walks around the neighborhood where we lived in Tucson (Armory Park). My daughter was 1½ when the pandemic hit. I carried her on my back. She talked incessantly—pointing things out, asking questions, naming things, describing things, reminiscing, that is, narrating her discoveries. I transcribed what she said as she was saying it. (I tweeted many of these transcriptions, and included a short excerpt in Hydra Medusa.) I have been reminded, through my daughter, that we are born many times. And I am reminded, thinking about it now, that that is what poetry records and passes on, or what I hope it does.
Here are the first and the last transcripts of what my daughter said on our walks around the neighborhood, pandemic 2020:
April 20, 2020
Here comes dollar tree
Bye cinnamon tree!
October 4, 2020
Let’s chase the dead bird
Ants probably ate the dead bird
Maybe a beetle I think
Remember we saw the grasshopper?
The workers are done
The moon is above the winding river