Kim Fu’s debut novel For Today I Am a Boy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) was the winner of the Edmund White Award, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize, a New York Times Book ReviewEditor’s Choice, and long-listed for Canada Reads 2015, among other honors. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in The New Quarterly, Room, Grain, Carousel, Poetry is Dead, PRISM international, Ricepaper, and The Rusty Toque. Through December 2015, she was the Writer-in-Residence at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon.
Poetry Editor Dominique Bernier-Cormier caught up with Kim Fu to talk about her poems in the Winter Issue, poetry and social justice, and how prose influences her poetry.
Hi Kim! We’re very excited to be publishing two poems from your upcoming first collection of poetry, How Festive the Ambulance (Nightwood, Spring 2016). Do you want to tell us a bit about this new book and its composition?
Hi Dom! Thank you so much for including those poems in the issue; it’s great to see them surrounded by so much stellar work.
The poems in How Festive the Ambulance are selected from all the poems I’ve written over the last ten years. A solid chunk of them came from the my MFA years at UBC, where I was in the ‘official’ poetry workshop and the ‘shadow’ workshop that met in each other’s houses, in bars, anywhere we could. The title and the cover, I think, are telling — a bit sarcastic, an odd, fantastical way of looking at mundane tragedy, which is the dominant mode of the book. And the two poems in PRISM!
Can you talk about the relationship between your prose writing and poetry writing? Has your experience as a novelist and journalist influenced your poetry, in terms of process, aesthetics or themes?
I’d say the influence is stronger in the other direction. I think I’m primarily a poet, and poetry is what comes most naturally and pleasurably to me, while fiction and nonfiction involve a lot more fruitless drafts and banging my head against the wall. And the lateral thinking of poetry—the inexplicable, visceral leaps in logic—is good training for how to develop character in a novel. Human behavior makes the same kind of almost-not-quite sense as poetic imagery. Writing poetry, too, can change the way you observe the world, draw your eye to different kinds of detail, encourage a different kind of presence, which I think can be useful as a journalist and essayist.
I love that idea of poetry encouraging a different kind of gaze, and that perspective being useful in journalism. I think we’re seeing a lot of that in documentary poetry, and poetry surrounding social issues. Poetic “almost-not-quite-sense” allows us to challenge logical, traditional narratives. What role do you think contemporary poetry can have in our societies?
Poetry is a difficult medium for argumentation—to explicitly try to make a rhetorical point, change people’s minds, or convey information. I find the “argument” often sneaks up on you, by first engaging you in a different way, at an aesthetic or emotional level, or by journeying through a parallel or metaphor that seems far afield. It’s a strange, slow, trusting way to make a point. That can be especially refreshing in the polarized, 24-hour-news-cycle, internet-thinkpiece era, where everyone is constantly yelling at each other. Conversely, I think the internet has made it easier to share and find poetry, and for poetry to have that kind of viral, global impact.
You mentioned your “shadow” workshop that met in bars and people’s houses. What do you think can be gained from writing in a community, from surrounding yourself with people who share your passion? And, on the other hand, is there something to be said for solitude in writing?
Writing is inherently solitary. Putting down words on the page is lonely, maddening work for (usually) little tangible reward. Community is extremely important in order to retain my motivation and my sanity. I need to feed off the excitement and passion of other writers. I need their editorial opinions and professional advice.
That said, it’s very, very difficult to find people you click with on both a personal and artistic level; just showing up to your average writers’ group can be disheartening and counterproductive. My strongest advice to young or new writers is always this: if you are lucky enough to find those people, never let them go.
Any book suggestions for holiday gifts?
I always enjoy the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays as a year-end read. Some books that seem good for anyone: Sweetland by Michael Crummey, Scrapper by Matt Bell, A List of Things that Didn’t Kill Me by Jason Schmidt, Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Tenth of December by George Saunders, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood.
What’s up ahead?
I just came back from the Berton House residency in Dawson City, Yukon. I’m headed to the UCross Foundation Residency in Wyoming in March, and I hope to have finished a new draft of my second novel by the end. As you mentioned, my first book of poems comes out in April; I’m very excited about that. I’ve been unexpectedly working on a second poetry book, as well—the Yukon was inspiring in that way. I have a story in the Winter 2015 issue of Maisonneuve, and work forthcoming in Poetry is Dead and CV2.