A Rush of Language

Larissa Lai reflects on Iron Goddess of Mercy
Rebecca Peng in e-conversation with Larissa Lai
Sun Xun, Mythology or Rebellious Bone, 2020 (detail), ink, gold leaf, natural colour pigment on paper, Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghART Gallery

Sun Xun, Mythology or Rebellious Bone, 2020 (detail), ink, gold leaf, natural colour pigment on paper. Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghART Gallery.

Images courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition "Sun Xun: Mythological Time" (February 20, 2021 – September 6, 2021).

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You’ve mentioned before that "the best characters come to you through voice." Iron Goddess of Mercy has a distinctive voice, too. How do you find—or know when you’ve found—a poetic voice?

A strong voice has a certain energy and a certain resonance. It's as though I can feel the speaker in my body. There's often a strong affect at work as well, as though the voice is moving something collective through me. In a sense, I become the voice, I feel myself to be the speaker, though often only for the duration of writing (I hope — since some of the voices are quite disturbing.) It is the closest experience I've had to being possessed! There's a certain kind of quiet required to receive the voices — but I'm looking for them too. In a sense, the voices are all "me", but "me" is multiple. By channelling the right ones, I hope I'm able to speak to the world out there in ways that will contribute to shifts for the better.

Iron Goddess of Mercy takes structural cues from both the hexagrams of the I Ching and from haibun. How did these forms influence the creation of the poem?

The poem came to me first in a rush of language. The first time I performed that early version of it, it so overwhelmed me that I broke down, and could barely continue. It needed a bit of structure in order to become human. Fred Wah works with the haibun, in the Mother/Father haibun that close out Waiting For Saskatchewan. Roy Kiyooka also uses the form in "Wheels". Kiyooka's use is not formally rigid, but he takes seriously the travel aspect of the haibun. Most correctly the haibun is a form of travel poem, in which the poet documents the sights seen and conversation had that day, and rounds it off with a haiku to clinch it. It's a form that's been in circulation in an Asian North American context for some time. I was on a panel with Timothy Yu recently where he talked about Fred's use of haibun as a North American pan-Asian usage.

My uptake of the form plays fast and loose with the travel aspect (though I suppose one could argue there's a form social, psychic and "poethical" travel that unfolds in Iron Goddess of Mercy), but it employs the formal structure quite properly. The revision of the first draft to haibun form helped slow the poem down, put the brakes on the runaway train so to speak. I hope the haiku function as resting places, each one crystallizing something of what went before. I'm aware of the dangers of appropriation and also of exoticization. However, because this poem is dealing in part with the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, I thought it might be poethically interesting to make the engagement to illustrate the long-standing back and forth connection between Japan and China, themselves not nation states in the Westphalian sense until the late nineteenth century for Japan and the early 20th for China. This back and forth has been sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile. For sure the occupation was the height of the hostile mode.

In a Canadian context, I've had longstanding friendships with many Japanese Canadian writers and artists, some of whom I consider part of my chosen family. One of the things the poem does theoretically/ philosophically is muse on friendly and antagonistic relationships across racial locations, outside or on the margins of whiteness. Are the only possibilities friend or foe? I think not. I think we need way more complication and nuance when we talk about (and swim through) relationships. Another form that haunts my use of haibun is the kanbun, which was Japanese way of translating classical Chinese poetry for contemporary Japanese usage from the Nara period to the mid-20th century.

You rightly note that the I Ching is also important to the project. As there are sixty-four hexagrams in the I Ching, so there are sixty-four fragments in Iron Goddess of Mercy. The fragments do not correspond to the hexagrams, however. This wasn't the way the language came to me. Where the poem borrows from and learns from the I Ching is in its recognition that different times call for different modes of action/inaction, and also in that there are always layers of contradiction and confluence at work in any given situation. The I Ching teaches me that the world is more interesting and complicated than good vs. evil or left vs. right. Engaging with it has been helpful for me to see beyond the binary politics that seem to shape our lives, especially, though not only in BIPOC communities. It teaches me that a politics of "with or against" is an inheritance of Christian, and specifically protestant, tradition that can only accept or refuse things. This filters into other ways of thinking and acting — particularly Marxist dialectics which demand the constant opposition of forces.1I know that Christian tradition is more complex than this, but the way that its tendencies have been received, secularized and diffused through the culture, especially activist culture, both troubles and intrigues me.

What I like about the I Ching is that it is a system of binaries — it makes space for binary being, but it organizes the binaries in sets of three and six and places them on a wheel of sixty-four. It offers a system for understanding action/inaction in movement. Also, it doesn't judge. It seems like a way of knowing that could be helpful right now. It also puts me in conversation with Indigenous ways of knowing without appropriating them.

Sun Xun, Mythology or Rebellious Bone, 2020, ink, gold leaf, natural colour pigment on paper, Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghART Gallery

Sun Xun, Mythology or Rebellious Bone, 2020, ink, gold leaf, natural colour pigment on paper. Courtesy of the
Artist and ShanghART Gallery.

Iron Goddess of Mercy is an epistolary poem, with a number of addressees. What drew you to the form? What surprised you?

The first time I was really struck by the power epistolary was reading Monika Kin Gagnon's "Letters from Calgary" to Jamelie Hassan during the conference "It's a Cultural Thing" in 1993.2These appear in her book Other Conundrums for readers who are interested. This was a moment when BIPOC artists were trying to break into the artist-run centre system in Canada and were meeting all kinds of resistance from the mostly white gatekeepers. I was in the midst of the organizing of the conference Writing Thru Race with Roy Miki, Michelle LaFlamme, Peter Hudson, Scott Toguri McFarlane, C. Allyson Lee, Joy Hall and others, and so was facing a very similar set of dynamics to the ones that unfolded during "It's a Cultural Thing".

Monika's letters to Jamelie were powerful because they were public correspondence to an ally — one inhabiting a different subject position, but who fully understood the situation and was sympathetic. It was the first time I realized that, as an Asian person, I didn't always have to speak back to whiteness. I could talk to other Asians, other people of colour, Indigenous people or Black people. When you have an interlocutor, who is not your antagonist, you speak differently. In a sense you make your public differently, even if that public is a public of one. If there are readers or listeners in addition to the person you are speaking directly to, that public broadens out, and is also made differently.

That was the first moment I really saw that when one speaks or writes to another, one brings a world into being with that other. No wonder those BIPOC/white struggles were making for such an awful time. With every antagonistic struggle we were reinforcing one another's positions! Sometimes, of course, it's necessary to do that because one needs to hold the other to account. Or be held to account oneself. But these conditions are not habitable for any length of time. If such conditions are sustained for too long those involved can become unwell, even to the point of death. Of course, any discussion with another is a discussion across difference, but by speaking or writing across fields of difference that are seldom traversed, it is possible to co-produce other publics. The frame of address also matters.

In writing Iron Goddess of Mercy, I learned that fields of racial difference are only the beginning. How one names oneself and the other shapes who both become. Also, one can speak to plants, animals, concepts and phenomena and transform oneself and the other in so doing. It's temporary and short range of course, when only one person does it. (One person cannot single-handedly change the world — thank goodness!) But if more than one person were to do it? If we were all to do it all the time? The world would actually change. There is massive power then, in trying to see/hear/feel the other and make the world with them.

I’d love to use this invocation of transformation to turn to a few figures of transformation in the work itself. One of the figures I kept an eye out for is the first addressee, the Maenad(s), who is introduced as someone with whom the speaker once "played touch footsie" and later as a "Martyr"; as a figure who balances "ferocious hope and loyalty, full of fear you / charge the door sword in one hand and a plate of chow mein / in the other"; as one who barters, rages, and sobs.

Her reference is in other classical company— for example, the wink to Pentheus and Actaeon—and these three, at least, all strike me as figures of transformation. Characters who in their original texts end up in between or outside of—or perceived, or arguably misrecognized, as being in between or outside of—their safe, "proper" human forms, transgressing or transforming or being transformed. I wonder if you might be able to speak more to the poem’s first, shifting figure of the Maenad or what drew you to these characters?

Thanks so much for paying attention to the figure of Maenad Martyr. This was the original title for the book, but I thought it was too much in the end.

I chose "Iron Goddess of Mercy" instead because I wanted the overall frame of the book to be one of compassion. The translation of Kuan Yin used to be "Goddess of Mercy", though in recent decades it's been translated as "Goddess of Compassion" which is probably more correct. I kept "Mercy" though because of the historical moment we are passing through, where it really does sometimes feel like it's mercy from above that we need! I grew up in Newfoundland, where the Catholic tradition is strong, and the cry for mercy is a popular one in times of trial, even among the nonreligious. This past decade or so I have been feeling that need for mercy in my gut. The call for mercy in this book is for me akin to a horrible game kids used to play when I was young, where a big kid would catch a little one, sit on them, and drool over their face or pinch their ear until the smaller one called "Uncle!" or "Mercy!" I have for some time been feeling like that smaller kid. It's not any worse than that, but it's not any better, so I stick around because I know how much worse things can get, and how much worse they already are for many people. But the sticking around, my own agency in it, is maddening — infuriating, so to speak.

"Iron Goddess of Mercy" or Tie Kuan Yin, refers to the Buddhist/Taoist/chthonic goddess of compassion, but it is also a kind of oolong tea — a very delicious variety. And tea, of course, is a big reason why my life is the way it is — it's a big part of the reason why there are so many southern Chinese people in the Americas. Tea was a Chinese export good that the British couldn't get enough of through the eighteenth century. It created a massive trade deficit that was draining British silver. In order to balance that deficit, the British began to export massive quantities of opium to China, as a prestige product, but also a product that relieved pain and promoted rest. And addiction, of course. The trade balance shifted in the opposite direction, and the Emperor tried to put a stop to it. Two opium wars were fought as a consequence — it's how Hong Kong ended up becoming a British possession, and a major financial centre. It's how so many of us end up both Anglicized and colonized.

So what has this got to do with Maenad Martyr? In the wake of several major blowouts in the writing/activist/and intellectual communities I inhabit, and the push and pull I was feeling in terms of political commitments and relationships to people in different corners of connected communities, I began to feel both like both my mind and my heart would explode. People were at one another's throats. Everyone had a good point. Everyone was in pain, each in their own specific and incommensurate way. No one was 100% right. No one was 100% wrong either. In order to try to figure out who to side with and what to do to improve the unfolding situations, my rational mind went to work as hard as it could. But there were real contradictions at play that I could see no dialectical resolution to.

Because I'm quite a feeling person (and because of some physical/nerve injuries I have that heighten unpleasant sensations) it was becoming physically painful. This poem began at the height of what I could no longer bear. I surrendered reason and just let the language gush. That was what it seemed to need to do. I didn't know what it was when it first came — it wasn't necessarily for public consumption. It wasn't necessarily finished material. It was just what I needed to do.

But then I heard an interview of Colm Toibin by Eleanor Wachtel on Writers and Company about his book House of Names. He said, "You can't write about the furies." And I thought, that's right. You can't write about them. But they can write themselves into being through you. And that was what they were doing. The voices I was hearing were maenad voices. And I temporarily became one as I spoke/wrote to and through them. I think part of what brings them into being is the deployment of trauma into the political/cultural sphere, where, of course, it belongs because we inherit histories of so much systemic violence. I think, however, that there's a fundamental break between prescribed social action and what it feels like to carry traumatic experience. I'm not saying there's nothing that can be done to respond to trauma, but only that rules and prescriptions are not it. So this is what my Maenad is railing about, and willing to die for. Her truth is rooted, but her speech is high melodrama, full of rage and contradiction.

Of course, Maenads are tied to the story of Actaeon. When I realized who was speaking, I was brought to mind quickly of a poem about Actaeon by John Pass, one that I had quite disliked because it was so sorry for the white men who couldn't help seeing the "naked truth" about women, and didn't deserved to get shredded for it. It wasn't that the feelings expressed in that poem were wrong or bad (though the poem did profoundly misapprehend women's experiences IMHO), but only that the poem re-centred men's experience at a time when women didn't really have a place at the table. (We still hardly do. There is a long way to go on basic sexism in our culture.) I had been carrying my irritation all these years, and now finally, the Maenads were on my doorstep and out for blood.

Sun Xun, Mythology or Rebellious Bone, 2020 (detail), ink, gold leaf, natural colour pigment on paper, Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghART Gallery
Sun Xun, Mythology or Rebellious Bone, 2020 (detail), ink, gold leaf, natural colour pigment on paper. Courtesy of the Artist and ShanghART Gallery

What Pass did get right, and what I understand too, is that in order for the maenads to do their work, we all have to enter the realm of the collective nonhuman. This work happens at the limit of the human, or at least the limit of the humanist. For those of us who inherit both Western and non-Western traditions, there is room for this. I go to the Tao, which I've already talked about. Other poets might go elsewhere. For Actaeon, this is, as you suggest, a kind of human to animal transformation. In some versions of the story, it's his own dogs who tear him to pieces. In others it's maenads. If we read the myths, as Robert Graves suggests we ought to, as political cartoons, then Actaeon gets his comeuppance for disrespecting women, but only once he ceases to be a man and becomes a stag. ("Dear Deer" has many resonances.) The film theorist Kaja Silverman says that, psychically speaking, fantasies of the body in bits and pieces might be a relief to that form of masculine subjectivity that has been straining so hard for all these centuries to uphold the myth of patriarchal (cis-het) coherence. The maenadic shredding of Actaeon then, becomes a kind of gift.

The story of Pentheus, however, suggests that male looking is ambivalent. (What I like about working with classical figures is that classical ethics are a lot less binary than the Christian ethics that we still live in the thick of. Actaeon's looking was not categorically bad as such, it just went against the virginal dictates of Artemis/Diana.) But if, in contemporary terms, Actaeon is a smarmy, gross cis-het dude who peeks at women and gets punished for it, Pentheus is a different figure altogether. And I must express great gratitude to Trish Salah who was the "poethics/sensitivity reader" for this book for getting me to think about Pentheus.

(Also, I'm not saying that cis-het dudes are gross — to the contrary, there are my dear people in my life including family members, teachers, friends and students who are cis-het dudes, and whom I love. But rather, Actaeon is the archetypical figure of how cis-het dudes can be when the veer into grossness/imbalance, particularly in relation to Artemis. Or to think about it differently, she is the figure that draws them into imbalance. Other archetypes have other ways of being gross! With apologies for the mixed registers!)

King Pentheus is complicated because he imprisons Dionysus, the god of wine, for not permitting women in his rites. Dionysus escapes prison, drives the women of Pentheus's family into a frenzy, and convinces Pentheus to cross-dress, and go spy on them. The women, as maenads, do not recognize Pentheus. They tear him out of his hiding place in a tree, and it's his own mother who rips him to shreds.

Different tellings emphasize different elements of the story, omitting some altogether. Pentheus is a very liminal, and ambivalent figure — the political cartoon is harder to read. Or rather, the events of his story lend themselves to a range of political cartoons. Is Pentheus a pro-feminist trans MTF? Or a lewd hypocrite who bans wine, song, and bodily joy, while secretly spying on death-and-sex frenzied women? Or both? Or neither? A gap opens in the field of metaphor. And, in both the Actaeon and the Pentheus stories, the feminine maenad figures have long since left the realm of reason. One might argue that they are caught in the impossible contradictions of incommensurate political cartoons that depict the same story but from very different points of view. Unable to hold a single position, they lose their sh*t and shred whatever lies in their path, even at their own expense. They have left the realm of the human(ist) rational to enter the realm of the frenzied natural/animal/collective/literary.

In a sense, this what the poem itself does, hence Maenad Martyr, as one potential title. The poem is a symptom of the impossibility of justice in a rational field. The work of transformation is powerful, but it's not necessarily very nice. The poem is a full on rager.3Wouldn't that make an interesting project for someone — to connect rage to the field of the natural/animal/collective and reconnect all that to the field of justice?

As for my uptake of classical figures, I can only say that I inherit them along with a lot of the baggage of Western culture. I carry them in much the same way that I carry Christian cultural knowledge, as part of a literature that I inherited through the project of assimilation. Assimilation took away my mother tongue, but it gave me the Western classics. I find wisdom there — a fraught and partial wisdom, but a wisdom nonetheless.

I also will wholeheartedly admit I also kept an eye out for, and was delighted by, every reference to Shrek, and welcome anything you’d like to share about how he found his way into Iron Goddess of Mercy.

I love Shrek because he's such an outsider figure. I've only seen the first movie — I should watch the others! But I like the way it takes all the old (Western) fairytales and turns them upside-down and backwards so that it's not always the beautiful who win. It's far from perfect, obviously. It valorizes some pretty questionable ideals. But I really appreciate its drive to do otherwise.

Shrek gets in there partially because of this, but what actually instigates his arrival is the work of internal rhyme. If this poem has a method it is, on the one hand trying to write as fast as possible in order enter a heightened, "maenadic" state so that the contents of the unconscious can spill out, without too much conscious control. Internal rhyme, listing, the repeated epistolary invocation "Dear" seemed to be the mechanism to make this happen. "Shrek" rhymes with "Chiang Kai-shek". For some reason, my poetic imagination connects him to the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line the first time he appears in fragment #1.

Consciously, I guess I was trying to deal with Chiang Kai-shek, the militaristic, murdering head of the Kuomintang in republican China. As you're probably aware, early 20th century Chinese politics were very fraught, brutal and complicated. The KMT, the Communists and the imperialist Japanese are responsible for the horrific deaths of millions of Chinese and Indigenous people throughout Asia, in ways many of us, including me, cannot fully face because it is so horrible and so unresolved. Culpabilities are tangled. Ideological narratives are shifting and contradictory. History is working through bodies in complicated and unresolved ways. No one's hands are clean, and none of the stories are tidy.

Shrek's story, on the other hand, while it valorizes positions of alterity, is very tidy — Shrek gets a classic fairy tale ending. His story is a Disney story after all!4See Ariel Dorfman's How to Read Donald Duck, for the problem with Disney. And the DEW Line was an early warning system built in northern Canada during the Cold War by the US, meant to sound the alarm should the Soviet Union send a missile over our northern border. Might the militaristic Chiang Kai-Shek's uptake of the Chinese republican cause after the death of Sun Yat-Sen have been an early warning to us of how the pure, Shrek-like ideals of modern statehood could go so badly wrong? The DEW Line was way too late (and at the wrong border) to prevent the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whose lives count and how they count are hopelessly entangled in the exigencies of history and political geography. The ever-shifting entanglement is so hard to hold that maenads have to lose their minds to do it.

Sun Xun, Mythological Time, 2016, 2-channel colour video animation with sound, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in connection with The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative
Sun Xun, Mythological Time, 2016, 2-channel colour video animation with sound, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in connection with The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative.

In a previous interview, you mentioned that you’re invested in "those moments when the body breaks". The physicality in Iron Goddess of Mercy is so striking, and I think it’s safe to say you continue to test "the body". For me, the blurring between "body" and "food" seemed especially constant. So many of the poem’s verbs are actions of devouring, consuming, eating as a mode of interacting with the world or others (and not necessarily with substances or subjects one might initially assume to be edible!). Do you see your language around food and its consumption as connected to the multi-faceted desire to explore alternatives to binary (re)action? Or were there other interests or motivations that inspired you to play with this language throughout?

Thanks for asking this question! I don't think I was so fully aware of the work with food and the body while writing. The Tiger Flu very consciously addresses these questions. Perhaps, in writing Iron Goddess of Mercy the food-body connection has just become part of my internal terrain.

I see that there's a lot of meat and fruit in this poem! Especially apples, pork and fish. I realize, as a body of work is beginning to accumulate, I seem to have certain preoccupations — a kind of personal metaphysics. I'm interested in apples as beautiful, delicious, juicy fruits that figure biblically as a sign of women's perfidy (and so instigate feminist conversations, and also conversations about sex and sexuality); as signs of knowledge (also biblical, but connected to our contemporary lives through a giant tech corporation of that name); as a sign of Westernness (no apples except by import in SE Asia); and as full of reproductive possibility. Apples for me are kind of like eggs. They contain the germ of something that can grow into something else.

As for pork, I'm sure you know that the Chinese character for "home" is an ideogram of a pig under a roof. The pig is a sign of wealth and happiness. Pigs are easier to raise than beef because they will eat anything, and you don't need a lot of space. So archetypically speaking, pigs belong to the axis of wealth and poverty — a very Chinese obsession given the extreme ups and downs of our fortunes. A lot of other cultures think of pigs as dirty and disdain us for eating pork. As someone who eats pork, but gets where it comes from, I'm conscious of my fundamental culpability — not just for pork-eating, but for a lot of things. And fish is obviously a staple for anyone with south Chinese roots, curiously, except my sister, who is allergic. For taoists, to trap a fish means to glean a moment of fleeting knowledge before it slips away again.

The body and food, of course, are connected — it's through food that the outside world gets inside. I suppose there are many sites of exchange — through the breath, air gets in; through the pores, small particles are involuntarily absorbed; through the ears we receive sounds, language, thought; through the eyes the visual world, images, text, ideas; through the skin, feeling. But of all these, eating is the most physical. Well, that and sex, I guess, through which other people go into us or we go into other people.

There's pleasure and violence in food. But to eat is also, in a sense, to both become and absorb the thing eaten. There's that old saying "You are what you eat" — this is true, though in eating, we transform the plants and animals we eat. Eating too much of the wrong thing can cause disease — we can be punished for eating poorly. There's an Chinese expression too — to eat bitterness. The last few centuries have been so rich with the eating of bitterness. My father tells the story of a man who has nothing to eat all his life but gall. He lies under the gall bladder, bound, as it slowly drips into his mouth. In our eating lies our pain, our culpability, our weakness (for delicious things), our strength (because our food nourishes us). We grow into what we will become because we eat. If we eat badly, we grow monstrous. If we eat well, we might grow into good humans, but we are still responsible for what we have taken.

The body then, is not an enclosed entity — for me it is absolutely porous. It takes in everything thrown at it, and becomes a combination of what it is given and what it puts out. It is what befalls it and what it does to others. We are our bodies, and our bodies are porous entities in continuous exchange with the world. For me, the body is as much a vessel of thought as the mind is — they are not separate. I don't embrace the body/mind split. The body is material, but is also social.

Eating is an inherently violent act, which I suspect is why we have so many rituals around it. We are at our most brutal and our most communal when we eat — everyone has to do it, and everyone is responsible for taking life when they do so. That life may be plant life or animal life, but no one escapes the taking. Already as animals that farm, we have betrayed our kinship to other animals. We nurture them, then murder them. The relationship used to be more personal. For some it still is — one of my relatives farms chickens and does all the processing himself. He, unlike most of us, is honest about his relationship to meat. For the rest of us, our relationship to meat is mediated by industrial practices. We are communal and yet detached from the killing. We are communal in our shopping. I hope we are also sometimes communal in our eating — I do think to eat with others is a good thing.

Because I embrace the Tao, I don't embrace the work of refusal. Or at least, I do so sparingly because refusal is its own violence, one that sets the refuser apart from everyone else in an extreme and often destructive way. I think it is possible to acknowledge difference and injustice while staying in relationship. I don't think our lives together are very often improved by refusal. (I won't say never — Indigenous and Black refusal of the rest of us in the current moment, given the long, shoddily addressed and ongoing histories of land theft and anti-Black violence is understandable and demands response. But if there's a gift to be offered from Asian locations, it's that Asian people who survived the 19th and 20th centuries know only too well that revolutions of refusal produce extremes of injustice, torture, and rape, not to mention dictators. The revolution remains important as an ideal, but if you don't have concrete plans for what to do if you win, you end up under the thumb of a cleric, an emperor, or a great leader.)

So, if I don't refuse meat, then I must confront my relationship with it. The same for any form of consumption I engage. In confronting the relationship, which is also confronting my own porous, thinking body, maybe I can make the relationship a bit better. To confront myself and my consumption can often be quite horrifying — hence the eating of strange things in poem, which you note so astutely. I know a lot of people have other ways of doing the work, but this is the practice I engage as my contribution towards getting to a better place from where we are.

Sun Xun, Mythological Time, 2016, 2-channel colour video animation with sound, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in connection with The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative
Sun Xun, Mythological Time, 2016, 2-channel colour video animation with sound, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in connection with The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative

Perhaps in that spirit of "getting to a better place from where we are": you've spoken about some of the structure and figures in this poem as emerging from a sense of restriction or pain. But this forthright engagement with pain — and dense histories and violence and chaos — leads to growth, transformation, and hope. Are there questions you ask yourself or your work to guide it from that initial gush of language towards greater possibility? Do you have any questions you might encourage other writers or readers to ask of the texts they consume?

What I hope this book does structurally is "re-orient" (so to speak) the moments of pain and violence that it carries. That the surrender to chaos, making itself present through internal rhyme, parataxis, and speed brings the traumatic elements the poem carries into the temporality of the furies and releases them. In a sense it's a surrender to the elements of movement — air, water, fire — so that the Iron Goddess doesn't need to carry them as such a burden.

But not completely. It's important to stay grounded in earth, in other words, to be present on the land, remember the past, stay grounded in respect and responsibility. Iron of course, is the metal element — in Chinese cosmology we have five elements rather than four. She's got to be able to wield a complex sword that sweeps through a range of affective modes, including rage and hurt, but also love and hope. And of course, literature must also be able to do these things — perhaps it too belongs to the metal element — the pen and sword as cousin instruments, ha! — though one is more subtle than the other.

I'm feeling quite excited about the form of these poems — as letters, as rants, as prayers, as curses. The form is light, yet it carries a lot of freight — it moves heavy, interrelated things around. If I've done my job well, I hope it moves them around with a certain grace and speed. I think we need that right now. Our struggles have been so heavy. The trolls have been so heavy.

Though the fragments are angry, they are also, I think, quite funny. It's an unusual pairing of affects, that could perhaps break us into another way of being. I'm driving for the ruptures of unexpected, and the universe seems to have granted a cornucopia of surprise to the Iron Goddess. I think a big reason why we are in so much trouble in our contemporary moment is that everyone wants control. The drive to control, IMHO, inevitably produces fascisms with their attendant companions: fear, cruelty, oppression, repression and charismatic rule. This is happening on both the left and the right — differently and unequally to be sure, but none of us are immune.

So if I've done my job right, the poem contains possibility too. The initial gush is also ongoing gush. The sixty-four fragments mirror the I Ching and in so doing embrace a certain circularity. Or better, a spiral. Its movement is not progressive because it's not linear. What this means, I hope, is that it contains both unbidden impulse and wise/open possibility.

In terms of questions for readers about the texts they consume, I would say: What might it mean to think of books as something other than objects of consumption? I know commodity culture encourages us to treat them that way. It's really hard to find life outside of capital right now. But there are certain entities that do belong outside — governments understood this when I was a child. Books are such entities. So are the elements: earth, water, air, fire, metal. When we consume, we instrumentalize. When we instrumentalize, we sign our own death warrants, IMHO. For the record, I'm not suggesting that it's possible to live outside capitalism. What I am saying is that it is possible to hold and practice values that exceed it.

Sun Xun, Mythological Time, 2016, 2-channel colour video animation with sound, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in connection with The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative
Sun Xun, Mythological Time, 2016, 2-channel colour video animation with sound, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in connection with The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative.

And finally, there's a wonderful scavenger hunt of recommendations embedded in your answers, but what are you reading now that excites you?

I just read Amanda Leduc's The Centaur's Wife and thought it was brilliant. I'm halfway through Jordy Rosenberg's Confessions of the Fox which is clever, and sexy and hilarious. I just read Anahita Jamali Rad's Still in order blurb it and thought it was great. I'm looking forward to reading Junie Desil's >em>eat salt/ gaze at the ocean

and Tenille Campbell's nedi nezu (Good Medicine). I'm also prepping a spring course of cultural organizing in the 1980s and 1990s, and going back to books like Carol Tator's Challenging Racism in the Arts and Telling It: Women Across Languages and Cultures, edited by Lee Maracle, SKY Lee, Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland. We need to hang onto our histories, including the messy and complicated parts!


  1. I know that Christian tradition is more complex than this, but the way that its tendencies have been received, secularized and diffused through the culture, especially activist culture, both troubles and intrigues me.
  2. These appear in her book Other Conundrums for readers who are interested.
  3. Wouldn't that make an interesting project for someone — to connect rage to the field of the natural/animal/collective and reconnect all that to the field of justice?
  4. See Ariel Dorfman's How to Read Donald Duck, for the problem with Disney.
Larissa Lai
Larissa Lai is a writer, poet, and educator.
Rebecca Peng
Rebecca Peng is a writer, currently living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre