“how does one carry oneself in the between?”
haircut poems (dancing girl press, 2017)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I was born in Nagoya, Japan and moved with my family to the United States on January 1, 2000. Most of my writing is informed by the “between” of existing as both Japanese and American, existing in both of these places, even the literal travel it takes to get from one place to the next. I’m not sure what led me to start writing exactly. Perhaps it’s genetic. My mother has told me before that she wanted to be a writer as a child, and my father told my sister and I what he would call “verbal stories” for much of our time growing up. There’s something about growing up shuttling from one country to another though that impresses upon you just how temporary or fleeting something might be. In many ways, I think my writing comes from a place of urgency, of wanting to note everything in case it fades.
How do you decorate your writing space?
Right now I do most of my writing at my kitchen table, so it’s not quite a dedicated writing space. I guess when I start writing I like to light a candle, open the blinds. I also make sure there’s some sort of spray of color, whether in the form of flowers or a bowl of tangerines. Mostly, I try to keep it uncluttered, although any such efforts quickly fail as my notes / books / scribbles take over the space.
Could you share with us a poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
This is an excerpt from a poem called “Hiroshima is a city of light,” which was first published in RHINO.
3. what is the obligation of a body? the responsibility of a skeleton? how should one stand when sandwiched by war? the posture of both massacre and massacred? when love is made in an armistice, what color is the flag to be waved? is it salvation that is born, or simply the reality of a battle, the way fighting can sometimes look like fucking? is there mercy in the meeting? can a body apologise to itself? or forgive it?
Why did you choose this excerpt?
I think this excerpt sums up a central tension of the chapbook, which is: how does one carry oneself in the “between”? I think about this in more metaphorical ways, even in this poem beginning with history, but I also think about it a lot in a very concrete way, as evidenced by the end of this poem. (It’s a four part poem, this being the third part.)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you? What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about your writing?
My favorite chapbook is Jamila Woods’ The Truth About Dolls. It feels genre bending and explorative of poetry as a form. It also reads in some places like a love letter, which is a quality I seek in writing more and more, writing that is meant for someone dear to the writer. Recently I’ve also been very into Death By Sex Machine by Franny Choi. She articulates something in these poems in a very grotesque but delicate way, something like the nature of womanhood (specifically womanhood of color) and wanting, automation and need, giving and being taken from. Overall, I think chapbooks are exciting because they allow for experimentation, for forays into specific subject matter that might not fill a whole book. I am inspired by such flexible, curious writing.
What’s your chapbook about?
Or rather, what a haircut might mean. In Japan there is a tradition of women cutting their hair if something of note has happened in their lives. I wanted to write using the haircut as a framework, thinking about bodies, sustenance, the physicality of existing, the ways we change or try to change when faced with trauma and tumult.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem and the poem that catalyzed the chapbook are one and the same: it’s the three haircut poems that mark the beginning, middle and end of the chapbook.
Originally they were one long poem with styled as a triptych. I don’t remember writing it, but I do remember reading it for the first time. I was at a reading / performance at the Stony Island Art Bank, and Jamila was singing something. I was asked by a friend if I had a poem to read and this was the only one I had on me. Funnily, what I remember is that it didn’t go over that well—it wasn’t very catchy or charismatic, much more introspective than something that people like to hear at an outdoor party. Generally when poems are met with silence, I have a hard time going back and trying to edit them again. I lose confidence, and it takes me many months before I go back to the poem. But this poem, regardless of the silence, I really enjoyed writing and working on. So I went back, and kept working on it, and now here it is!
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The title of the chapbook is the title of that triptych. The arrangement of the poems I think largely focused on what felt like an appropriate way to lay out tension and resolution via the dramas painted in each poem.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
Perhaps not a backstory ,but the poem “yesterday” draws from a couple snapshots. The preoccupation with red and red lips in particular comes from something I once heard at a Mixed Race Studies Conference about how after the war, in US occupied Japan, comfort women wore red lipsticks to signal their availability to American GIs. As you may know, comfort women were employed by the Japanese government in Korea, the Philippines, and even in Japan where certain women were designated a sexual buffer for soldiers, whether they were Japanese soldiers or American ones. I think this is a very shameful, condemnable part of history that needs to be better acknowledged. I also think a lot about how mixed-race children after the war were primarily borne of this violence, and what it means to come from violent histories, and how one might reconcile ore reclaim them.
Another snapshot that fed into this poem is a white girl I saw on the N train one Halloween who was dressed in a pitiable Geisha costume, a girl who I never said anything to, even though the pink of her face under her white pancake makeup is something I still cannot unsee.
Finally, the poem begins with the etymology of the word chink, which comes from the French word chine, which describes an animal’s backbone as visible through a cut of meat.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
“yesterday” was also the final poem I wrote and revised for the chapbook. It poured out of me on a July day in my New York apartment. I remember sitting down to my desk, thinking I had nothing to write, and then out came this strange poem that was simultaneously the largest leap in form for me, as well as perhaps the truest thing I could manage at the time. I’m not sure I ever feel that something is complete, but this poem, its grossness, its ambiguity, how fun it felt to write it—it made me excited about poems again in a way I was increasingly feeling resigned to.” haircut poems” may have catalyzed the book, but “yesterday” finished it.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
Reading a loud. When you read a work a loud, it cannot hide what is excess or weak.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
My cover design is actually an illustration by my sister, Mary Blair Coomes. She is many times my most trusted reader since we have experienced together so many of the things that inspired these poems. I asked her to read the manuscript, sent over some line drawings that I liked and she came back with the now-cover image, which I love. I’m almost more proud of the cover than the actual book.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a monthly column for Catapult, as well as trying to apply to as many summer writing workshops as possible! I’ve never received any formal writing training and attended my first real structured workshop this past year at the Kundiman Creative Nonfiction Intensive. That experience and the community it provided, all the new ways to write and think about writing it uncovered, it reinvigorated and regenerated my zeal for writing. I’d like to do more of that.
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
I am not the best person to ask this—I worked for about two years as a news producer where being saturated was quite literally my job. Now, post-producing, I’m still a news hound in my spare time and don’t do very much to curb that inclination. It’s not the healthiest thing, but it informs my writing and the way I move through the world. However, when it does come time to step away, I find that focusing on the immediate relationships with people I love is a good way to pull the focus back onto what matters most.
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer born in Nagoya, raised in Chicago, and currently resides in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The Collapsar, RHINO, The Margins, and | tap | lit mag, among other places.