FABLESQUE by Anna Maria Hong
Tupelo Press, 2020.
Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque collection (Tupelo Press 2020) is an inventive bestiary with an insistent feminist examination on what it means “to be a person instead of a very competent erasure.” Writing within the constraint of a bestiary—a descriptive or anecdotal treatise on various real or mythical kinds of animals, especially a medieval work with a moralizing tone—Hong applies pressure through a feminist re-interpretation on traditional Greek myths, common Western fables, and personified animal tales. Fablesque achieves an expansive reconsideration of gendered storytelling. Instead of the simple “feminist twist” which generally describes reinterpretations of established fables, Hong’s approach, I think, is more of a “feminist torque.” Over centuries, when heat and pressure are applied to carbon, diamonds are formed deep inside the earth’s hold. Hong’s applied pressure and poetic feminist language provide the “torque” which upends our expectations of the original fables; under her astute crafting they become new luminous stones, which gleam as she sets them into place.
The first section of the collection contains the majority of the bestiary poems, and Hong says this sequence was an intentional decision, which began in 2013 and was completed over the course of the next subsequent four years. Part of Hong’s process was an attempt to slip back into that childhood pleasure of getting lost in books and reading for hours, often beneath a tree. This opening section invites the subversive feminism to rise up, and as each poem unfolds, the collection builds in tone and texture, and affirms Hong’s insistent stance that traditional fables and folktales can provide the landscape to destabilize our expectations.
Often a reader’s first impulse is to look for any autobiographical information the poems in a collection may provide. Writing by BIPOC authors is often characterized and analyzed solely through this autobiographical lens. (Read: the White gaze has expected narratives in mind.) Hong resists this trap by utilizing fables and animal tropes, by shifting the autobiographical to the allegorical. It may seem like the autobiographical and first-person speaker are elided completely. However, they do appear with Hong’s careful crafting and considered restraint. This makes it so that when the “I” does peek through, it carries surprise and impact. “The Beautiful Places,” which appears in the third section, is an excellent example. On the other hand, one of my favorite poems in the collection, “The Ants,” provides a first-person speaker who narrates from a skewed reality that seems like a dreamscape where the body shifts from female to male and then is being consumed by ants. The final couplet reads:
Soon, I know, the ants will begin anew, eating out my soft
middle, as I return to this blue-gray room again and again.
The pleasure of Fablesque lies in Anna Maria Hong’s ability to place us in both the realm of fables (in our common vernacular) and inside her “feminist torque” of our expectations within those traditional narratives. Personally, I admire Hong’s reclamation and reinterpretations of these fables as a fellow Korean American woman. Her collection is among a growing stack of Korean American writers that I esteem and with whom I find a deep sisterhood. Our conversation below explores more deeply Fablesque’s origins, touches on her evolving approach to the lyric “I”, and much more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Audsley: The collection opens very intentionally with the poem “Heliconius Melpomene” as an introduction to one of the book’s main threads – a bestiary – and then shifts to a prose exposition of the story of how the speaker’s father survived North Korean invasion of South Korea. This poem feels very much like a hybrid form and an invitation to the reader right from the start. It seems like the role of the fable helps shift the reality of the retelling. Could you say something about this?
Anna Maria Hong: Yes, the first piece is a hybrid piece, blending lyric essay and poetry. It brings in familial tales as well as folktales, fairytales, fables— because I had already been working with animal tales I melded the two modes. It was one of the last pieces I wrote for the collection, and at that point I knew I was working towards a bestiary. The familial part of that piece I had attempted many times previously, and it always felt unsuccessful. In retrospect, I can see the connection now between familial tales and folktales. We hear both types when we are really young…
SA: That makes total sense to me: each of us hears our own family tales and we create our own family mythology and creation stories. The familial story can become fable, too.
AMH: Exactly. And those family stories can grow and seem really huge and important; the fable allows for the unreality of a story to exist and for there to be an outsized kinship with narrative. Horrible things can happen in a fable, and that mode allows for trauma from these events to play out in their unfolding. In Greek myths, there’s the eating of one’s relatives, vengeance, etc…
SA: Yes, the fable allows us to witness these horrible things happen in an altered reality. That allows us as readers some distance and to tell ourselves, “That’s not real.” It seems like the fable allows you some distance, a little stiff-arming the reader, which gives the storyteller some freedom…
AMH: Yes, there is some distance built into the fable elements, which makes it a little bit easier for the reader to digest.
SA: Did you feel like you were using the fable to create that distance from the material for yourself?
AMH: Of course. I think I have been doing that for a long time. For example, my previous poetry collection and my novella, H & G, both utilize fairytales, folktales, and myths and I found that early on I was able to use those modes to evoke a mask that allows the telling of autobiographical elements that feels somehow safer.
SA: Yes, as I was reading your work I was wondering what your relationship is with the first-person speaker. The “I” appears infrequently throughout the collection, but when it does it seems like it is deployed in a very considered way. I ask because I am interested in how poets navigate the first person and the autobiographical mode. I feel like we privilege the first-person speaker and the confessional mode. I see you resisting that in your work…
AMH: That’s such an astute question. In my first three books I have definitely avoided the lyric “I” mostly because it felt too exposing to me, and I wasn’t comfortable writing in that way. The persona poem and writing through characters allowed me more freedom in my work. Now, in my current work, I have shifted away from that and I would say I’m leaning into the “I”.
SA: How does that feel, three books in, to shift to that first person, more true to the lyric “I”, which you resisted previously? I feel like maybe it was inevitable…I mean, the first-person speaker is still a persona, but in a different way.
AMH: It does feel exposing, in a way, and the lyric “I” feels politically troubled. To assume this kind of confessional “I” is an odd position, because I always think of it as fictional, some version of the poet, even if it seems like a very autobiographical “I.” The poems I am working on now, these seemingly traditional lyric “I” poems, are compelling me to comment on the lyric “I.” At the same time, I am also working on a new research-based project.
SA: Would you mind expanding on the political positioning of the lyric “I”? Does thinking about what it means to be writing as an Asian American woman and a person of color influence this?
AMH: That’s a great question. Yes, I actually think that is the major reason to write lyric poems. To write from the very subjective, autobiographical, confessional mode should be decolonized. As an Asian American, BIPOC feminist writer, I feel like I can find an interesting way into the lyric with more subjectivity and a feminist leaning. How can I resist the narcissistic tendencies of the lyric “I”?
SA: How did you handle the expectations of referencing commonly known fables and storytelling (Greek myths, Red Riding Hood, etc.)? Is it an extra challenge to work with the reader’s expected narrations of these fables? Did you ever consider working with Korean fables or those from other cultures?
AMH: I think it’s an advantage to evoke those narratives because they exist in the popular vernacular so I can push back on them and be in dialogue with them by changing the angle of narration or providing a slice of the story, different characters can be highlighted, and plot points changed, and the reader still has an access point even in a poem like “Kronos” for example. As for the tendency to work with Greek myths: they are deeply embedded in my DNA from childhood. Every time it rained, at my elementary school, they would show Greek mythology movies, so those stories have been in my head since I was young. I could see how someone might criticize my work for not referencing Korean myths; however, as Korean Americans who were not born in Korea, access to Korean culture takes time and research. Writing and making allusion to Greek myths is also a reclamation of them being a part of my culture. It took a long time for me to get my books published, partly because I think there is an expected subject matter for people of color to write about. You should write what you’re moved to write.
–to the beginning–
–absent father/happy childhood
–adoptive maternal grandparents
SA: Yes! One other deep thread I noticed throughout the collection is its feminist underpinnings and overt feministic tone. My favorite moment of this was in the poem “Antelope” with the line, “all nerve and no pain make Jane a beaver without a cunt, a sex toupee” (p. 11). Twisting it towards a feminist bent undermines the colloquial language.
AMH: Yes! You have so much room to play. Fables are rife with patriarchal bias.
SA: One of my other favorite feminist moments was in the poem “Snow Goose” (p. 17 – 19):
[…] Let’s say there was a young girl so ________ that
once she hit puberty, her mother put her in a glass carriage
with a beast, a monster with a man’s brain, face, and hands
and the matted pelt and girth of a fire-breathing lion
The fill-in-the-blank move is genius as it shows that any adjective will do. There’s no escaping.
Later on in that poem, you write:
[…] She will be a very good daughter, and
then she won’t be when she chooses, as the dead horse
predicted, to be a person instead of a very competent erasure.
Social commentary right there!
SA: So I was wondering, what is your definition of a “feminist”?
AMH: For me, personally, it always comes down to some kind of solidarity with other feminists and recognition that there are wrongs to be righted in regards to gender. The majority of the population is female or non-binary and yet we still contend with disenfranchisement and so much more. Misogyny and sexism is so pervasive; feminism is foregrounded in all of my work. It is urgent to me…I guess I would say feminism is the effort to rectify gender-based inequities and there’s definitely, for me, a component of solidarity and “sisterhood.” This part may get lost for some, but I think it requires us all to recognize how internalized misogyny is. Feminism counteracts the scarcity model and assumes there is abundance.
SA: Yes, and I think your collection is a fantastic exploration of all of that. With that being said, I know you feel really comfortable writing in different forms, so what does the word “genre” mean to you?
AMH: I started as a prose writer and then moved into poetry. I was a journalist before I started writing creatively in earnest,and then in my MFA program, we were required to choose two disciplines to work in. I studied poetry and fiction. Poetry helps me to invigorate my language. I feel comfortable writing both, and in Fablesque I definitely mix genres.
SA: It seems like a version of freedom to feel comfortable in not claiming any particular genre, to have the flexibility of mind and the writing prowess to work in hybridity.
AMH: It gives you an enormous amount of latitude. For example, including a lyric essay in a poetry collection seems completely natural to me. At the same time, I enjoy working with different constraints like the sonnet. The musicality of language, its dexterity, is something I really enjoy.
- Of Beasts & Feminism: An Interview // Review of FABLESQUE by Anna Maria Hong ~ Sarah Audsley - January 28, 2022
- Books in Conversation - May 26, 2020