“Rewriting the poem on a fresh page becomes another filter by which to revise.”
Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)
Rate your writing space?
I love the atmosphere created by draping a string of white Christmas lights around my desk. Usually there are poems tacked on the wall, and some sort of Batman meme.
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?
They are inextricable for me. I’m not talking about finding my personality quirks expressed in the work, though I’m sure psychologists would have a field day with that angle of analysis. There is nothing more disappointing for me than reading and loving someone’s work, only to find them to be insufferable in person. I try to be generous and empathetic with my work, and therefore with my readers.
What are some of your favorite books? Or what are some books that have influenced you?
So many! People always seem surprised when I name the poet Ai as one of my earliest influences, given the nature of my own work. Other books I constantly return to are Don Mee Choi’s whole body of work, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead, Li-Young Lee’s Rose, and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. I also love multigenerational family sagas such as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. While we’re at it, I’m going to say that the anime/manga versions of Rurouni Kenshin and Cowboy Bebop made me consider loyalty and honor in unexpected ways that have stayed with me for years.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I’m fascinated by Korean history, and wanted to explore aspects of it that I haven’t had access to as a Korean American adoptee. For this book, I did a lot of research on the Korean pearl-divers (haenyeo), Jeju Island, and its historical relationship to the main peninsula.
What’s your book about?
Hour of the Ox explores the many ways in which different people grieve based on their relationship to the lost loved one, how they reflect and move forward or don’t. We don’t exist in a vacuum, so things like culture, history, filial duties, and personal values influence how we react to the things that happen to us.
How did you decide on the title of your book?
Grief, memory, and emotion distort time, so I wanted a somewhat unfamiliar way to measure such an intangible thing as time. One of the threads in the collection draws from the Chinese zodiac, which prescribes personality attributes to specific measurements of not only years, but hours. The zodiac used to measure 2-hour increments of the day. The hour of the ox falls between 1 and 3 a.m. The ox is traditionally a work animal, but everything bad and shady also happens that late at night, so it’s a conflicting time full of darkness and anxiety.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
Complete overhaul. I had a professor who recommended starting each revision with a blank page. Even if you make no changes, rewriting the poem on a fresh page becomes another filter by which to revise.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
University of Pittsburgh Press has been incredibly kind and attentive with my book. Although they had the final say, they asked me for recommendations, and I was fortunate that the artist I wanted said yes. I was drawn to the work of Jono Dry, a self-taught photorealistic-surrealist South African artist. The cover art is a large-scale graphite drawing done by hand over many, many hours. His process time-lapse videos are incredible to watch.
What are you working on now?
I’m collaborating with Don Mee Choi and E.J. Koh to translate the selected works of Korean poet Yi Won into English. I’m also working on new poems about America’s involvement in the making of North and South Korea, as well as a series of lyric essays on food, international adoption, and Korean culture.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Try everything. Read books you love, read all genres, read outside your comfort zone, what you think you don’t like, to try to articulate what it is you don’t like, and why. Experiment. Consider every poem you read a prompt to write your own poem. Keep at it. And be kind. There is room for every school of thought in poetry.
Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and the 2016 Florida Book Award Bronze Medal for Poetry. She has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman, the Knight Foundation, and the American Literary Translators Association, and her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Best Small Fictions, The New York Times, and more. She serves as a program coordinator for Miami Book Fair.