Chosen Constraints: Three Questions with Steven Duong
Ari Kaplan/AGNI: “Ode to Playboi Carti in the Year of the Dog” seems to take its musicality in part from your use of the ghazal form, particularly the way you vary repetitions of the word “crack.” Can you share a little bit about how music influences you as a poet, and the intersection of music and form?
Steven Duong: For me, the connection between poetry and music largely lies in the interaction between structure and play. This is especially true for the ghazal. The ghazal can be described as a rigid form for its insistence on that end-line refrain, but it offers so much room for experimentation between points A and B. You know what point B is, but how do you get there? With a refrain so constant, you have to get creative with every couplet. You can’t move to the end-word without play, without doing something weird with your movement, some form of experimentation, some flourish in the language itself. You have to move in strange lines. There’s something improvisational in how the ghazal churns, and improvisation is a hallmark of my favorite music.
Playboi Carti, the rapper addressed in my poem, is the kind of artist who shows up to the studio without lyrics or melodies written—he lets the beat run, freestyling and filling in the blanks with ad-libs until he feels his song there, glittering and strange and alive. He’s such a visionary. You can tell he knows the structures and tropes of trap music well, but he never approaches a song head on. He’s always coming in slant, always slinging his voice over a beat from a new angle. As for “Ode to Playboi Carti,” whenever I write about another artist, something of their art bleeds into my own.
When you say the work of other artists “bleeds” into your own, it makes me think of the way poems exist in dialogue with other poems, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by virtue of being part of a larger written or oral tradition. Improvisation strikes me as a kind of dialogue between a musician and their ensemble, the audience, a musical tradition and even the moment or atmosphere. What artists and/or writers are your poems most often in conversation with?
Yes! Poems are always in dialogue with other poems, not to mention stories, songs, movies, novels, memes, and all the other bits of culture we digest daily, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s so easy to think of writing as something done alone. Something done at your desk on your typewriter by candlelight, all that jazz. But no! Writing is one of the most communal acts you can engage in. I say this all the time, but you absolutely cannot write in a vacuum.
I think of many writers and artists as my ancestors: Ruth Madievsky, Terrance Hayes, Young Thug, Diana Khoi Nguyen, James Baldwin, Joni Mitchell, Octavia Butler, Phoebe Bridgers, Sean Bonette, Valeria Luiselli. Too many ancestors to name, to honor properly. And I mean ancestors not in a spiritual sense necessarily, but in that these writers are my ghosts, the voices I hold closest. They are not dead—they still bleed. And yet they haunt me. All the time! I’m haunted!
What these artists have in common is the way they approach language and sound, which is to say, strangely. In seeking to bring out my own strangeness, I place my work in conversation with theirs. I borrow their turns of phrase, wrap my language around the skeletons of theirs. As an avid music listener, I love the idea of sampling, of taking an existing piece of art and cutting it up, splicing it into my own rhythms, making it both foreign and familiar at the same time. My favorite artists are samplers and thieves, so I always strive to sample and steal my way into something new and surprising also.
It seems to me that all writers are haunted in one way or another, whether by ghosts, as you say, or family history/trauma, or by another preoccupation—an idea, a question, an image. “Ode to Playboi Carti in the Year of the Dog” and “Extinction Event #6” seem haunted not only by the voices of your writer-ancestors, but also your actual ancestors. In “Ode to Playboi Carti in the Year of the Dog,” we hear the speaker’s father, and in “Extinction Event #6,” the speaker relates the experiences of his relatives. How do intergenerational dynamics, and perhaps even reckoning, haunt these poems and your poem-making generally?
Family is a constant in my work because family is a constant in my life. The degree of contact I have with my immediate family changes from month to month, year to year, but they’re always there. My parents are deeply conservative people, and the love we have for each other is complicated and contradictory. What is love when that love is tinged with guilt, anger, and nonacceptance? Unconditional love is a kind of hell. Growing up in America, we take in very specific cultural understandings of what family ought to be, but in my experience, there is no good way to reconcile the disconnect between my family and my idea of what family ought to be. This gap haunts me. My poems’ speakers are haunted by the voices of mothers and fathers and uncles and aunties and the actual dead. But listen, I see a rapper I love who OD’d three years ago as more my ancestor than a great-great-grandfather whose name I’ll probably never know. The intergenerational is important to my work, but no more important than the intertextual, the play between my poems and, say, the short stories I love or the SoundCloud playlists I make.
All writers of color, and especially immigrant writers, know this: we are expected to write our immigrant narratives, about cultural disconnects and the feeling of being stuck between two worlds. We are read in those restrictive terms because the themes and subject matter of our work are given more weight—by white readers—than our inventiveness and craft. I firmly reject the way contemporary scholars read the works of people like me. That’s why I love formal poetry so much. Ghazals and sonnets and villanelles allow me to place boxes around my own writing, to choose the constraints I’ll work with rather than allowing the constraints of the audience to exercise themselves alone. When I write a poem, I write myself into a future that I think I deserve, without letting go of the ghosts that shaped me. That’s what I’m trying to do with these poems in AGNI and my poems and stories more broadly.
Ari Kaplan is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (12/2020)