For issue 7 of Some Kind of Opening (SKOO), I had the honor of interviewing Ariel So, a 2nd-year MFA Candidate in the Writing Program with a concentration in poetry. Our interview was an intimate discussion about the process of writing, the theme of “SUBDUE/D,” her poem “When a Question Curls into Gentle Vowels,” and much more. Ariel’s work was outstanding to read and it was a tough decision deciding what to featured within this issue but ultimately “When a Question Curls into Gentle Vowels” to me fit perfectly within the oeuvre of works being featured in the theme of “SUBDUE/D.” To me, the poem focused on the body or bodies and how people react or engage with it. Ariel provides us more details that inspired this work of art.
Were the poems you submitted to SKOO written this year? Were these written for your workshop, or were the poems something you already had in your repertoire?
The poems were all from different places. The first one was from my first workshop from the MFA program. The second poem was the one accepted. I actually wrote it a while back, so I was glad to be able to give it life again.
One of the biggest themes within your work was embodiment. How do you feel about that interpretation of your work?
When I'm trying to add in more concrete details, embodiment is important to me, in terms of how things are carried in the body or how a sentiment is being located in the body. Lines like, “in a stranger's arms” and “walking hand in hand,” those are moments when I'm trying to bring out what a feeling is like, even if it's something more abstract.
What was your process of writing the poem “When a Question Curls into Gentle Vowels”?
I think revision is always a process because when you're at different stages in your life, you bring something different to the poem. When I'm redrafting, what's helpful for me is going back to previous drafts and finding where it is working and where it is not. It's, kind of, like pulling pieces from different drafts I love most; sometimes when I do a new draft, I realize, actually, there was something in the previous draft that might have been lost, so sometimes I have to trace back those steps. I had to put it away for a bit. It’s helpful for me to come with a new set of eyes, to read it again. For instance, with this poem, I kept changing the line breaks throughout the process, in order to put emphasis on the last word of a line. I was trying to evoke reciprocation—in a way that can happen with someone you've just met—and how line breaks can have a push-and-pull quality. It was a matter of finding where the natural pauses were, while, other times, making it more abrupt or jagged.
Yeah, I can see that. There are sections, where it's longer, and then there are sections, where it clips. One of the great examples is, “or if the jazz catapults to an end in its first step,” where the lines are shorter and then sandwiched between longer lines. I'm just like, oh, that was so good, especially being able to feel that push and pull of those lines not only within the work itself, but on the page. It's just so beautifully done. Thinking about when you wrote this, what was the intention, the first time you wrote this? Then coming back to it, has that intention shifted?
When looking at an old poem, what I've come to realize is needing to honor some of those initial intentions. Writing that poem, I was inspired from an encounter I had with someone over one summer. I was grieving a lot, so it was hard to open up or talk about my grief. But with this person I met, we had this moment where I was able to share, which was rare and special to me at the time. I was inspired by the T.S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” That’s how I came up with the lines: “I fear there was always ‘this, and so much more’ ” and “That to say what I mean was ‘not what I meant, at all.’ ” I also drew from Eliot’s line: “streets that follow like a tedious argument.” It's funny how those came in, because they were both from the poem itself and in the conversation I was having with this other person. What do you do when language seems to be incomprehensible? The experience of grief can feel so fracturing that words are never enough to express something. Growing up, I've always been a more reserved person and afraid to express what I mean. That can be counterintuitive to me as a writer, but at the same time, it's why I've loved writing so much over the years; it's about trying to reclaim the self and bringing my own expression onto the page.
Right. First, shout out to T.S. Eliot. Second, right now, we have your beautiful piece and thinking of “Prufrock,” that poem always felt like some kind of monologue or interiority to me. When you wrote this poem, did you have a feeling or need to use Eliot’s foundation of a monologuesque form to express yourself as a writer/speaker, especially since you mentioned earlier that you were reserved or not as outspoken with your feelings?
I think that idea was very much felt at the time and what I was trying to capture in the poem, of internal questions and self-doubt. Going one way, and then backtracking again. That was an internal monologue quality that I was invested in. It made me think about how I try to choose my words carefully. Not that I don't know what I want to say, but that I'm trying to find the right way to say it. Writing is a way of thinking. It's different because you can have an entire poem written out and have someone read that in one go, as opposed to when you're talking, which is very instantaneous. Writing can have moments of capturing that internal monologue, and other times, it’s crafted. Part of that is interesting to me.
I have a question about the definition of “SUBDUE/D.” It can be defined as being reflective, restrained, overcoming, or being in control. How do you see your poem fitting within this issue of “SUBDUE/D”?
There's so much about the power and limitations of language that have to do with “SUBDUE/D.” I’m interested in the interplay of the two. You must have one to have space for the other, like opposing forces. Part of it is the internal struggle of expression with language, its own back-and-forth conflict. Sometimes when you find the right words, that in itself is a kind of power. Other times, that can be an abusive power. That's also why it's so important to be careful with our words. Often we may feel limited with that power of language, when we feel like language is inadequate. But because of those limitations, it's also much more important to keep trying to get closer to the thing we want to say, and hopefully the poem can express that. What does it mean for it to be understood by the receiving end? It's when we have moments of misunderstanding that it makes moments of understanding much more crucial. Coming from a place of wanting to understand goes a long way; that sort of reciprocation, that attempt of good intentions, is sometimes more important.
I like that definition. When thinking of the theme “SUBDUE/D,” it’s always seen as a negative word. Like, “oh, we've been subdued” or “he has a subdued demeanor.” I want to thank you for the way you framed thinking of “SUBDUE/D” as an autonomous action; I think it speaks so much as to who you are as a writer, and as a person. But also, there's people who are very uncomfortable with silence, and it's like, no, sometimes sitting in silence is a good thing. Being able to see your interpretation of “SUBDUE/D” as something intentional and giving agency to both the speaker and the reader, I really appreciate that.
Ariel Joy So is a Chinese poet—born and raised in Hong Kong—who has also lived in Singapore and the United States. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, Moot Point Magazine, Bee Infinite Publishing, Protest Through Poetry, and elsewhere. She graduated from Scripps College with a BA in English and Creative Writing Emphasis. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University.