Interview

It’s All Just Writing: Defying Genre in The Yellow Book

The Yellow Book ([PANK], 2020), Sam Cha’s anti-genre opus, is intentionally, wonderfully, and sublimely elusive to conventional description. To quote the blurb: “The speaker opts for camouflage, transformation, and evasion. The book, similarly, aims to elude identification, to contradict itself.” For all of these reasons and more, Solstice was elated when Sam agreed to guest-edit the poetry section of our Spring Issue. We were also thrilled to interview Sam about The Yellow Book—and what he’s been working on since.

 

Ilan Mochari: In “concord” the speaker says: “When I was very young, for any given English word or idiom, I could almost instantly tell you where and when I’d first read it. I could tell you the book, and I could tell you how far into the book….when I concentrate on a word, I see it. I see it printed on the air in black and white.” These lines, for me, were a window to one of The Yellow Book’s aesthetic avenues—namely the way the works look on the pages. The text’s morphology is a story within the story. There are multiple shapes, forms, alphabets—not to mention graphics and innovative usages of footnotes, numerals, strikethroughs, and headings. At what point in the conceptualization and composition of The Yellow Book did your sense of the book’s overall architecture and polymorphous appearance begin to take root?

Sam Cha: The speaker, in “concord,” is experiencing difficulty translating—he hears the words of the poet who is reading, but he hears in sight, and must translate the sight back into sound, into his voice, rather than the poet’s. Poor kid. Conversations are confusing for him. In order to speak, too, he must first hear, haltingly, his own voice. Or whatever cacophony of voices, yammering out of memory or embedded in the messy Sarlacc pit of his head. Then endeavor to see the words that he hears. That sight comes, if it comes, nearly all at once, the end of the sentence simultaneous with the beginning, as when you scan a page as fast as your eye can go. This sight must then be untangled into the slow progression of sounds that make up a spoken sentence. Writing, by contrast, is easier, more natural. It involves one less layer of translation. He just has to arrange the words on the page—visible, concrete—in a way that looks like the shapes of the sounds in his head. (But as he does so, the shapes on the page modify the shapes in his head.) It’s a plastic art, something like sculpture. Maybe also a little like drama—trying to get different voices lined up in the right spots, with the right blocking.

(“The speaker,” I say, in order to maintain critical distance and attain the level of pomposity that is a hallmark of the writing-about-one’s-own-work genre.  But there’s no use pretending. “The speaker”: it’s me.)

The architecture of the book, I am sorry to say, was an altogether spur-of-the-moment deal—I had all these pieces, and I needed to figure out how to put them together, in short order, like flipping burgers or making a hash or a scramble; I broke some eggs doing it. What it was, was: I saw the [PANK] contest. I wanted in. The deadline was about two weeks away. Problem was, I didn’t have a manuscript, as such. I had things that I’d been working on for my chapbook, American Carnage (Yo-Yo Labs, 2018), that didn’t make it into the chapbook, mostly because they were too long, or outside the scope of the chapbook. (That one’s mostly about gun violence in America.) So I had “mule,” which is largely about the horrible Rooftop Korean meme, and about feeling gross and ashamed and complicit in systemic racial violence in America, and I had “Why I am not a pianist,” which is about feeling gross and ashamed and complicit in violence in Korea and America, and I had lots of loose pieces jingling around in my hard drive, all these quarters and dimes and nickels and penny-for-your-thoughts, like the extended Korean mythology riff that appears as a footnote in “mule,” and I had stuff that did make it into the chapbook that I wanted to revisit in a slightly different context, and all of it seemed to be coming from a similar place, but where was it? I remembered an old piece that I wrote for an open mic night at the Cantab, where I was talking about being Jackie Chan-ed at a Taco Bell, and I decided that that would be my starting point. I noticed it had this deflated punchline, a sort of anti-punchline, really, like a sigh, and I decided to start writing more of those. So I went to the Atomic Bean Cafe in Central Square, which died in the pandemic, and I spent a lot of time there nursing my coffee and getting angry at the people who’d walk in and just forget to close the door behind them, as if it weren’t fucking freezing outside, and reading Jack London getting angry at Jack London, first because I’d found out that he’d written an account of traveling through Korea during the Russo-Japanese War (Koreans, he said, were dirty and lazy), and then because I’d found that unbelievably terrible science fiction story he wrote, and in between all the coffee and the rage mustered enough energy to fuel some prime graphomania. And then, at the end of the two weeks, printed everything out on my trusty old black-and-white Samsung laser printer that saw me through my MFA thesis in 2013 (seriously, I keep waiting for it to die, and it just refuses; I have just named it; its name is Koschei the Deathless), and shuffled the pieces in various orders until they made sense. I made parts and I titled parts and redid titles and made a table of contents and sent it off.  Much later—about a year later, really, during the lead-up to publication—I wrote the various COVID-related things, and found places for them.

So my process is fly by night by the seat of my pants and also lots of stimulants and also the terrifying yet necessary existential pressure of deadlines—sometimes I feel like I exist as a kind of amorphous blob, a kind of quivering sentient jelly, until somebody slaps a deadline into me like vertebrae.  Then I become something like a human. You know? People born with executive functioning, people who spend their time as full-fledged vertebrates, they get to say interesting things about process. Good for them. My process is fear of extinction.

IM: Those lines from “concord” about how one can see a word are just one way to mull The Yellow Book’s morphologies. In “some notes about where I’m from, framed as a discussion of genre,” the speaker cites Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, Melville’s Moby-Dick chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” and other works regarding limitations and frustrations of conventional genres—and the notion of saying what can’t be said and naming what can’t be named. It made me wonder: to what extent are you (dis)satisfied with the end product that is The Yellow Book? The speaker concludes “some notes” by saying: “….A mixture. A layering. An improvisatory leap. Insufficient, but available, comfort. My genre.” So, specifically, I’m wondering: As the author—more than one year after the book’s release—what is your sense of these insufficiencies, and how (if at all) has it changed over the course of the year?

SC: My thoughts about genre can be summed up neatly with the following anecdote about Fanny Howe. Once there was a Fanny Howe reading. Afterwards there were questions. One of the questions was: Fanny—you write in so many different genres! Novels and memoirs and essays and poetry! How do you do it, how do you navigate? Fanny stood there. Paused. Cocked her head a bit. Like the question just didn’t quite make sense to her. Then said: well.  It’s all just writing.

Fanny Howe is always right. It is a central article of my faith, an immutable law of the universe.

My regrets about the book have, I think, less to do with the book itself—it is what it is; we’re writers! Writing is about being dissatisfied with what you have just written and using that dissatisfaction to fling yourself into the next thing!—and more with what I’ve done with the book, in terms of publicity and applying for prizes and doing readings, which is very little.

That said, I’m a little annoyed at myself: The Yellow Book, even though it is not a novel, and doesn’t really have a plot, turned out to be, more or less, a Bildungsroman / roman à clef, the stereotypical first book. For whatever reason, I thought I wasn’t going to do that.

Oh well. I’ll live.

IM: The “punchline” piece about Elsie Sigel’s 1909 murder is one of the only “third-person” pieces in the book—and it’s one of the works through which the book, to paraphrase Sumita Chakraborty, intertwines historical violence with the contemporary and explores how subjects are made and unmade. Other historical examples include the speaker’s reflections on Jack London’s racist vision of the future in his 1909 story, “The Unparalleled Invasion” and the meaty menu from a Hartford restaurant from 1851. And yet, as Sumita points out, The Yellow Book is also full of contemporary tropes and subjects, ranging from Covid-19 to people claiming they’re “colorblind” to the casual usages of terms like “wifebeater” for a garment and “hit” for any number of actions. How important for you was this commingling of “then” and “now”—and was it tempting to begin before 1909, or before 1851 (the year Moby-Dick came out)?

SC: I mean, I think that the distinction between “then” and “now” is, like the distinction between genres, largely and unnecessarily artificial. The Elsie Siegel piece is of course about 1909, but it is also about now (or now in 2019)—although maybe that’s one of my regrets, that the father/murderer is so transparently a Donald Trump stand-in; that his father is so transparently a Fred Trump stand-in.  I was a little nervous, actually, because for all I know Franz and Paul might have been perfectly competent, perfectly pleasant people. Certainly Franz Siegel has over Fred Trump the advantage of having fought for the Union in the Civil War; I suspect that Fred wouldn’t have done the same. But—well, there’s the factual past, the past that happened, and then there’s the past seen from the present, the past transmuted into meaning—the past that survives embedded in the present, that constitutes it, in one single catastrophe, rather than a chain of events, as Benjamin has it.

1851 is in at least two senses the beginning of the book. The book accreted around “mule” to begin with, and I wrote “mule” thinking of it as my answer to “The Whiteness of the Whale.”  And of course I know that that sounds impossibly self-important, but without overweening preening self-important ambition we are nothing, or at least I haven’t found a way around it, that flies past those nets and try-pots. Second: Moby Dick was one of my earliest entry-points into literature, which set in motion the chain of events/catastrophes of my life.

IM: In Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Chang writes: “Chuck D and Rakim had come from similar circumstances and had similar aspirations for themselves and the race, but they had different ways of seeking their utopias. As Greg Tate wrote, ‘Chuck D’s forte is the overview, Rakim’s is the innerview.’” I thought of that quote because one of The Yellow Book’s many virtues is another kind of commingling—of overview and innerview. Both are deftly encapsulated by the title, which, for readers of a certain age, will evoke both the old-school “phone book” directory and/or the renowned British literary journal of the 1890s—as well as the numerous associations that come with “yellow,” many of which the speaker addresses in “from sickness.” When in the process of creating The Yellow Book did you come up with the title, and what do you like most and least about it?

SC: Ah—I haven’t read the Jeff Chang (although now I’m going to). In 2015? 2016? I was doing one of those 30/30s where you write a thing every day for thirty days. I’d done a 30/30 for Tupelo Press the year before, and I’d been pleased with what came out, so I wanted to recapture some of that. This time, my writing seemed to coalesce around fairy tales and re-telling fairy tales.  (Part of that went into the Elsie Siegel piece, which is also a Red Riding Hood variation.) So I was fooling around with titles for the whole thing. I knew of the Andrew Lang books with the vari-colored titles, and The Yellow Book stood out, because, well, in a previous life I was flirting with becoming a Victorianist, and yellow’s what my hated/beloved Victorians would have called me. That project didn’t quite turn into a full-fledged MS, but the title was in my head. (I also have, on my bookshelf, two issues of The Yellow Book journal—July, 1896, and January, 1897.  I forget, now, how I acquired them—either in a used bookstore in Northampton, or gifted to me the summer before college?) So when I was trying to put the MS together for the [PANK] contest, I knew practically from the start what I was going to call it. Usually titles come last for me; I dislike them; I dislike doing them. It was a relief to have a title that came so naturally. I don’t like it or dislike it; I just think that that’s what the book is—a kind of anti-Bluets (for a very limited value of Bluets), where the color is the foci not of intense longing, but of alienation: instead of “I am Curious: Yellow,” like that movie I haven’t seen, “I am Annoyed: Yellow”; “I am Conflicted: Yellow”; “I am Seen as Yellow: Yellow”; “I Have Seen Myself As Yellow: Yellow”; “I am Looking Back At How I Saw Myself As Yellow And I Am Wincing: Yellow,” et cetera et cetera.

IM: One of the most fascinating characters in The Yellow Book is the speaker’s father; in your current project, a key character is a distant relative, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. In addition to the change in biological distance to the relative addressed, the means of addressing the relative has changed, from casting the father figure as a character in the work to an effort, through the work and the use of neural networks, to engage with Theresa more directly. How did this idea evolve, and what compelled you to go the extra mile and plug the inputs into an actual language model? And, what can you tell us about how your work has and has not changed since The Yellow Book came out?

SC: My father was the one who gave me the edition of Moby-Dick that I still read, every year.  It’s the 1985 reprint of the 1972 Penguin English Library edition; a little yellowed now, foxed around the corners, page-edges a velvety gray, spine crackling like black ice. But still holding together, not a page loose or falling, thanks to the transparent contact paper that he wrapped around it before giving it to his six or seven-year-old son—it was summer when I read it, I think, so I was six.

I write, in some ways, in order to measure up to that gesture, which means that I am constantly a failure. Writing is, as I write somewhere in The Yellow Book, also a betrayal, and so I am a—how’s that for an Elizabethan thought?—constant traitor, as well.

I live in the cracks.  Korean passport, but haven’t been back in 20 years.  Been living here for 20 years, but not a U.S. citizen. Teach college, but composition, not poetry. Adjunct, so all the work of a full professor, but none of the benefits, except an educator’s discount at a few stores. Poet, but weird poetry that looks like essays. Essayist, but can’t write an essay unless I pretend it’s a very long weird poem.

All the while, this confused chorus in the background. Sight/sound. You know how, when you lie in bed dozing and you listen to machinery in the distance or waves or traffic or white noise generators, you begin to assemble the noise into music or chants? It’s something like that. But in hemi-epileptic fashion blurring the world. These moire patterns, diffractions, herringboning across the field of the inner eye.

Something translates the translation into voice. Sometimes they are the voices of people I know, and sometimes they are my own voice.

This is something like what I’d imagine an AI language model would experience, if it were capable of experience. When I encountered the work of Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, in their pioneering Travesty Generator, it was like encountering a new explanation for why I feel the way I do.

Meanwhile, I was already reading and re-reading Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, along with her other works. I was mulling the idea of a kind of shamanistic channeling, a kind of séance in text. Ancestor voice speaking through me, as it does through us all. Theresa herself does much the same. In text, in Dictee, where she is channeling all of these different voices—the voices of ancestors of spirit and body. In her performances, where she utilizes the iconography and gestures of Korean mudang shamans. In her films, where in a sense she is the ghost. The AI language model seemed to provide me with a way to literalize all of that.

The techniques change, but what I am trying to do does not. Traitor I am, and failure, and caught in the amber of the world. I write to see out of it. I write in order to save what I can save.

 

***

 

Below is an artist statement from Sam Cha, followed by a piece of writing called “AUDIENCE / DISTANT / RELATIVE.”

Artist Statement/Project Proposal

A)

This is a project about a ghost, and also a project by a ghost. Both ghosts are immigrants from Korea. One of them “is” me. The other “is” Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. She was a distant relative of mine, though she died long before I knew anything about her.  “Audience / distant / relative,” begins one of her less-known works:

you are the audience
you are my distant audience
i address you
as i would a distant relative
seen only heard only through someone else’s description

There’s a way in which this feels addressed to me, personally. It’s also personally addressed to you—every you—because that’s how it works. But it’s personally addressed to my cells, to the pattern of follicles that made her eyebrows and mine and my children’s the same shape. Not that this makes me a privileged addressee. But it pulls on me, a specific gravity.

Theresa was haunted. You see it in her name—the Korean Hak Kyung 학경 standing next to Theresa, walking wherever she walked, talking in a low murmur while she spoke English and French. You see it in her best-known work, too—the ghost, split into the nine Muses that structure Dictee, speaking the words of dead women, of immigrants and martyrs and saints. And you can see it in her performance art, as she channeled elements of Korean mudang shamanic ritual, repurposing old technologies meant for speaking to ancestor-ghosts, for letting ghosts speak through you.

Now Theresa haunts. Often you can see her peering between the words in a book by Myung-Mi Kim. Sometimes there is a line in a book by Cathy Park Hong or Ocean Vuong that seems to trace the outline of her mouth. But like any ghost she is mostly silent, mostly invisible: “seen only heard only through someone else’s description.”

I wondered whether it was possible to speak to her more directly, to let her speak through me. I am, after all, her audience, her distant relative.

In this project, I propose to do so. First, by writing ceremonies that are meant to invoke Theresa. Second, by attempting to collaborate directly with her ghost.

GPT-2 is a language model that runs on neural networks. You give the model a word to start with, and it—based on what it’s learned, from looking at the ways in which people use language—picks a word that looks right, coming after. And another. And another. You can fine-tune it, too, to make it learn the choices and quirks of individual writers.

At its best, what the model generates is surprising in the same way that dreams are surprising. Or oracles: the Delphic priestesses scratching cryptic lines on leaves; the Sibyl whispering in the Avernian dark—words you can’t quite make sense of, pricking that place behind your eyes that assigns meaning. Imagine the Sibyl, grown so tiny with age that she can’t be seen. Now imagine an array of such Sibyls on a silicon wafer, dreaming. While they dream, they talk to each other in electrons. I fed the GPT-2 model a huge chunk of what I’ve written over the past ten years or so. (A ruminant cyborg; a cud-up method.) And long passages from Theresa. Now it dreams in ways that often sound like both of us.

As my work sample, I’ve enclosed

  1. i) some of the poems that “we’ve” “written” “together.”
  2. ii) some of the work I’ve written at a (relative) distance.

B)

A little clarification about ghosts and immigrants, in the form of a Wittgenstein pastiche:

  1. You don’t need to be an immigrant in order to be haunted.

1.1   But all immigrants are haunted.

1.11 This is not about “hauntology,” per se, or if it is, it is because this is where hauntology comes from. Its motherland: exile. Derrida was a immigrant and an exile. Marx, too.

1.12 “I am home.” “I am not at home.”

1.13 A child’s logic: all I remember is getting on the plane. Before that nothing. I was someone else. I am someone else’s ghost. Everybody lives till they’re a hundred and then they fall down dead with their faces in their hundred-candle birthday cakes. When it rains it’s God crying or maybe he has to pee. The floating dots in the sky when you look up are the faces of ghosts. If you kill a moth during the day he waits for you in the dark when you have to go to your room. He sits there the size of your bed. Stray light catches on his eyes with a click. When you open your door he opens his wings, unrolls his mouth and you have to say: I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. If you’ve lived before and if you become someone else when you die how do you know you’re not someone else right now?

1.14 We are.

1.2  To be an immigrant is to be translated.

1.21 Not only in the sense that we are living in the realm of a different language. But also as Enoch was translated, or Elijah. Moved into a different life.

1.22 What is lost in translation? Arguably everything. To translate is first to destroy. As with the transporters in Star Trek, in which Spock is disintegrated, translated into burning, musical patterns of light, to be reconstituted at the other end of the beam.

1.23 Now imagine the destination as a prism. The transporter beam refracted, split. Spock and Goatee Spock and Young Spock and Old Spock and Alternate Universe Spock and Time-Slip Spock and Animated Spock. This is logical. Spock, too, was an immigrant. Translation creates ghosts, multiples, after-images.

1.24 A prosaic example: the food that I cook for my children. When I make what I tell them is omu-raisu, there are many people in the kitchen. All of them are me, and none of them are me. Sam 1 knows that “omu-raisu” is the accepted term, in current English usage, for fried rice that is topped by a thin omelet and a ketchup sauce, and that his children need to know the dish by that name, in order to be able to order it at a restaurant. Sam 2 knows that omu-raisu is a Japanese term, and that the dish was popularized in Korea by Japanese colonizers: he chafes against the need to transmit this trace of historical trauma to his children. Sam 3 reminds Sam 2 that omu-raisu is itself a loan word from English, and that colonizers have also been colonies; that Cologne was once Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. Sam 4 is four years old and sitting in his mother’s grad school apartment in Minneapolis, eating the dish for the first time, while around him, unseen, unknowable, swirl all of the ghosts that haunt his mother. They lend a hand with the cooking. Sam 5 is twenty-two and in his own grad school apartment, trying to reverse-engineer the dish on a hot plate, DIY-ed out of an Westinghouse electric tea kettle and some tin foil. Sam 6 is forty-two and hasn’t talked to his mother in two years, and feels deep guilt when he thinks of her. Sam 7 is trying to replicate the taste that Sam4 remembers—but how is he supposed to replicate the flavor of the ghosts that aren’t his? Sam 8 is trying to improve on the recipe. Sam 9 is trying to remember what he used to call it in Korea: like omu-raisu, he thinks, but not quite—it’s the vowels, which don’t fit into English. He can hear them, but his children can’t.

1.3  All writing is a kind of translation. All words are in some sense translated.

1.4  The words themselves, then, are immigrants.

1.41 Haunted.

1.411 By everything: by etymology, which is to say the whole of human history, which is to say the patterns of wind and rain from a million years ago on the savannah, which is to say the processes of evolution and the movement of continents and the radiation from the sun and the gas from volcanoes, which is to say the trajectories of planetoids and comets and the chemistry of oxygen, which is to say the masses of atomic nuclei and the behavior of electrons, which is to say the alchemical transmutations at the hearts of stars, which is to say the nature of gravity, which is to say the fabric of the universe and the speed of light, which is to say the Big Bang, which is to say the immigration from nothingness into being.

1.42 And haunting themselves.

1.5  Every immigrant a spectrum of ghosts, and therefore every word.

1.51 To write, then, is to become immigrant, to become ghosts and to listen to ghosts and to argue with ghosts. To let the ghosts issue from your fingers, your mouth. A séance.

1.52 You yourself, the site of exile, the grave, the ghost.

AUDIENCE / DISTANT / RELATIVE

In the new world, no one knew
what happened to the ghosts.
But one by one you and I

died; and each by each the world

showed us how we could
achieve the end. If you could leave
a lifeline, what would it be?

It was the middle of winter.

It was in the middle of January.
How strange.
The middle of January:

nothing moved not a chair not an egg not

a gramophone not a stamp not
a typewriter not a mouse not a refrigerator not
a baguette not a quatrain—

How strange.

My ghost had been having an unpleasant dream
of the world that is not
the world that will be. Then I lost her

in the middle of winter.

This speaking is a retread of the original.
But the original has been lost.
This is how one speaks.

In the middle of January.
Is that
any comfort?

There is a wind from time
that blows slowly
a dull sense of uneasiness
that prepares the way
for the next phase.

How strange.
How strange.
YOU ARE THE AUDIENCE

Good morning. I’m afraid.

In the clouds the words are changing
the words come in packets
and packets go missing.

A universe of disorientation. Are you

who you are. Are you we. Are we the mirror

image of us. How do we resume
our bodies, the accustomed contours
Do you know what it is like to be born again?

A quiet cadaver-ridden paragnosis.

Did you walk to the graves
did you dig with teeth
did you tear at the grass

did you grind with fists

You and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you continue forever
you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you continue forever

 

you are the audience

you are my mask

I am what you are

you are the audience

I am what you are

I am what you are

I am your skin

we are what you are

we are your skin

we are the same

bone

YOU ARE THE AUDIENCE

you are the audience

you are the only one who isn’t

sorry
you are the audience

I’m interrupting

you are the interrupting

you are the audience

I’m your interrupt

I’m your medium

you are my medium

I interrupt you

in order to reach you

in order to cancel

your invitation

in order to punish

forreckoning

invincible

I interrupt you

in order to cancel

your invitation

It is a sentence that I

cut.

It is a sentence that you

cut.

It is a sentence that you

cut.

It is a sentence that you

cut.

It is a sentence that you

cut.

It is a sentence that you

cut.

we each hold ourselves in a loop, you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you and you continue

doing so, we hold ourselves in one body, you hold me in your body, you pull me down, you hold me there, in the dirt, waiting for the moon to pass by, that one heavy heart beating in my chest, that one heavy skull, that one bulge of blood all waiting to grow

The thought that says: don’t shoot us.
The thought that says: don’t shoot us.
The thought that says: don’t shoot us.
The thought that says: shoot us.
The thought that says: don’t shoot us.
The thought that says: fire.
The thought that says: aim.
The thought that says: aim.

 

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