Kathleen Hellen

“Call it a ‘pillow book’ of memory. Call it the myth of a Japanese-American identity.”

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The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin (Saddle Road Press, 2018)

Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that invites the reader into the world of the book?

What obsessions led you to write your book?

After the Occupation, when I was five, my GI father left Japan under increasing anti-American sentiment and brought his Japanese wife and mixed-race children to the Rust Belt of America, where I grew up. Aside from the challenges of adapting to a new land, a new language, there was the constant struggle to belong, to construct an identity that was half Japanese, half American in the absence of community. That struggle had its parallel in poetry. At the university, I found an absence of poems that spoke to the Japanese experience aside from a few tokens, and none represented the diverse experiences of middle- and lower-class Asian Americans. I hope to enlarge the canon. As Timothy Yu writes in “Making the Case for Asian American Poetry,” it is far easier to find “autobiographical narratives of immigration, assimilation, and identity formation—from novels and memoirs, leaving poetry almost entirely out of the Asian American canon.”

What’s your book about?

Call it a “pillow book” of memory. Call it the myth of a Japanese-American identity. Through the voice of the “hapa,” The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin retells the moment when “the clocks stopped the world went white a thousand winds rushed in”—the first atomic bomb that began my journey to the interior of the self. The collection documents this poet’s emigration from Tokyo to the “Steel Valley” of Pennsylvania and explores the challenges of a new place, a new language, that forged a biracial identity. These poems evoke the tension between conformity and conflict, between belonging and alienation.

What’s the oldest piece in your book? Is there one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

One of the oldest poems in the collection is “Wedding of the Foxes,” which began many years ago when I had the opportunity to see Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams, and the episode titled “Sunshine Through the Rain,” in which a boy defies the wish of a woman—presumably his mother—to stay at home when the sun is shining through the rain. This is the strange weather when the kitsune—foxes—are believed in folklore to have their weddings. When the boy witnesses the wedding procession from behind a tree, he is spotted by the foxes and he runs home, only to find the woman refuses to let him in unless he commits suicide with the tantō knife the foxes have left for him. It ends with the boy setting off for the mountains, where the foxes live, and a rainbow.

The episode haunted my dreams—the woman, in particular, the “mother,” and the tantō knife. The images recalled my own mother telling me once, when I was a little girl, how a samurai woman always kept a dagger in her kimono’s sleeve—and so the poem was finding itself, becoming. In “Wedding of the Foxes,” I was scripting Kurosawa’s dream as my own, and I let my “dream voice” speak without interruption. This is Keats, isn’t it? This is “negative capability.” What I discovered only later, after the poem had been written, was that I was trying to give voice to this “authentic ethical act.” I need to trust this “dream voice” more often.

How did you decide on the arrangement of your book?

Several failures preceded the final arrangement, which was inspired by the patterns and rules that inform Noh (jo-ha-kyū). In this progression, small units are linked to larger, often overlapping modules and arranged to form sequences that begin with the slow, simple introduction (jo), leading to the more complicated exposition (ha), and ending with (kyū) the short, fast finish that refers back to jo.

Whose work helped you write this book?

The works of two great masters helped me to write this book: Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book and Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

The final poem I wrote for this collection now serves as its prologue, “Hello Kitty.” The fictional cartoon character greets you as you enter the Japanese American National Museum in LA’s Little Tokyo, where I visited a year ago to better understand the legacy of Japanese-American internment during World War II.  Sometimes called “Kitty White,” this gijinka—the animal-like character in human form—is a hybrid, a chimera, if you will, depicted with a red bow on her head, button eyes and nose, and, most notably, no mouth.  As I revised the poem, the cartoon-image became a vehicle to say what it means to wage war with self, with history, with culture. “Hello” opens this narrow road to the interior of the self, to the wisdom of surrender. Everything changes—nothing is separate or self-contained.

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Born in Tokyo, half Japanese, Kathleen Hellen is the author of The Only Country was the Color of My Skin (2018), the award-winning collection Umberto’s Night, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net, and featured on Poetry Daily, her poems have been awarded the Thomas Merton poetry prize and prizes from the H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square. She has won individual artist grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

www.kathleenhellen.com/ 

One thought on “Kathleen Hellen

  1. I particularly enjoyed this interview. The poet is so eloquent about her process and her intentions. We need more books from Asian-Americans exploring their experience with a mixed heritage. I have ordered the book and look forward to reading more.

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