An Interview with Emily Lee Luan on her debut, 回 / Return!

To celebrate the publication of 回 / Return, Nightboat intern Em/Emily Lu Gao spoke with Emily Lee Luan on crafting, processing, and finishing her collection. Read more below!


Emily Lu Gao: There is a lot of discourse in your book about history, familial and mythical. A title can do so much work for a book. Migration and immigration are such prominent theme in your collection too. Given the title, what do you feel you are returning from?

Emily Lee Luan: I’m so interested in the distinction inherent in your question, between returning from and returning to. I think of the title first in the imperative—return—an invocation to return to childhood, a memory of sadness, an image that haunts, to my grandfather, looking back toward the village he left.

But, returning from. I guess the poems attempt to return from a time I felt separated from myself and instead move toward a wholeness, despite homesickness, despite a fear of a fragmented sadness returning. And many of the poems ask for a feeling, a someone, or a moment to stay, which is to say come back, which is to say return from where you are.

Em: Your visual poems throughout the collection, such as “I can’t go back.” What is your process like crafting this poem? Where do you start (ex. preliminary sketch)? Compared to non-visual poems, how do those processes differ?

Emily: The visual poems are hard for me to describe, process-wise. The closest sensation I can compare it to: you know that flow state you can get into when you’re breaking lines or altering visual form? Even just getting the quatrains to sit right on the page? That’s what the process is like—like I’m speaking in the pure graphic language of the poem. These poems exist in a place of almost non-language, where the words or phrases are as much image and sound as meaning. Some follow clear visual arguments—the text for “口,” for instance, is simply laid out in that square shape and follows the stroke order for writing that character. But for the most part there’s no preliminary sketch or planning; I just feel my way through it.

For “I can’t go back,” I accessed the tunneling feeling, of falling through the earth, that I invoke elsewhere in the collection. The repetition of circular text mimics the slow echo of a voice in a well. A concept I loved as a child was how the gravitational force of the earth flips when you get to its center. So, I reflected the poem across the midpoint of the page.

Em: Follow-up: Chinese itself is naturally a visual language, which you explore in your poems too. Do you feel your knowledge of the Chinese language makes visual poems a natural progression of your poetic expression?

Emily: A Chinese character is a poem in that it enacts the visual at the same time that it telegraphs meaning (I wrote about this at more length in the futurefeed blog). In that way, reading a Chinese character is actually a very similar experience to engaging with a poem. I was interested in heightening this awareness throughout the book through the inclusion of Chinese characters, as well as through the visual poems.

Em: I really admire the decision to not translate Chinese characters as I often feel non-English writers are expected to give in for English. For example, in “Types of Return,” the whole poem is in Chinese characters. But in poems like “Lunar Year” and “哭,” the Chinese characters alternate with English in every line (or what I’d call “Chinglish”). How did you decide what words to leave untranslated?

Emily: My linguistic project in the collection is to make people look at the Chinese character on the page, rather than reading past it, or allowing the silence of non-recognition to shadow its appearance. I find it problematic when people say that encountering a language other than English shuts them out of a poem, or that the presence of the language tells them they’re not the intended audience for it. My poems usually offer a pathway toward gleaning meaning from  Chinese character, through repetition, context, negation, form, etc. For example, “Types of Return” is a Shakespearean sonnet, so one might look for a turn, or how the repetitive phrase might interact with meter and rhyme scheme. Of course, some intricacies are inevitably lost, but why are we so obsessed with complete translation anyway?

Then there are phrases like 《飯糰》. It reduces to something like “rice ball.” In fact, they are sticky rice rolls stuffed with Chinese fried dough, pickled radishes, pork floss, scallions… There wasn’t a clear logic to including keeping the 飯糰—it’s just too specific, too good a Taiwanese breakfast food to translate.

Em: From the opening and closing spirals to the way sections are partitioned, the organization 回 / Return grabbed my attention. On page 3 there is a singular dot. Page 19, 25 and 53 both have black, 2D hemispheres on them. How did you decide on these symbols and where to place them throughout the collection?

Emily: I ended up with seven distinct sections in the book, including three long poems about my grandfather that act as interludes throughout. My friend and poet Ariel Yelen suggested I lean on the section break marker to guide the reader and help them anticipate what might come next. The half-moons (what you describe as 2D hemispheres) mirror one another like so ( ) and act as parentheticals, enclosing the three “grandfather” sections.

The spirals that open and close the collection are actually very early character evolutions of 回 (think: Warring States Period). My mother wrote these while drafting the calligraphy for the cover, and I loved how they interacted with the winding, coiled themes of the book.

Em: Reversible poems play an integral role in 回 / Return. In these poems, lines can be read forward and backward—sometimes even horizontally and diagonally— to create multiple poems from a lone block of text. How do you feel this form, reversible poem, echo the major themes of your book?

Emily: 回 / Return, in its most nascent form, really began as a personal investigation into a Freudian definition of melancholia as a stuck place, of complex grief, as well as David L. Eng and Shinhee Han’s expansion of that idea into a racialized—specifically Asian American—theory of loss. I was obsessed with the concept of obsession, of grieving something unnamable, and circling it without end. The image of a stone well, which is a primary catalyst for the family histories in the book, also gave way to many voids and holes, both metaphoric and visual, in the book.

When I came upon the Chinese reversible or multi-directional poem through Michèle Métail’s incredible scholarship on the form in Wild Geese Returning (translated from the French by Jody Gladding)… I don’t know, I couldn’t believe it existed. The form enacts the emotional process of reversing—it’s a poem that doesn’t end, that either returns you to the beginning or sets you on an alternate pathway. They were, as poems often were at the time, about homesickness or loneliness, the spiraling quality of the form a search for some sign of home. In other words, by emulating the reversible poem, I wasn’t just writing the circle into the poem—the poem itself began to circle. It was the procedure to answer the feeling I was trying to name, without asking me to name it.

Em: Audre Lorde says “we are socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition.” Your book deals a lot with locating and making one’s own language and how they shape our past and present. How has your writing helped you to respect your need for language more than fear?

Emily: What a beautiful question—thank you. In some ways, 回 / Return was motivated by a fear of loss, a fear of being returned to previous grief or one of many inherited griefs. I think fear often makes us turn away from the very thing we fear. But once I saw that fear, I couldn’t look away from it. And once I started writing it, I couldn’t go back.



A former Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Emily Lee Luan is the author of I Watch the Boughs, selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. She lives in New York City.