The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan about her poetry collection Bear, Diamonds and Crane.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview.
Brian S: Well, even though it’s just the three of us right now, we should probably start talking about the book.
Camille D.: I’m just down the street from Stanford. The game’s on in the room I’m in.
Claire: That’s right. You’re in California. Where I’m from!
Camille D..: I know! I recognized so much of the landscape of CA. An emotional landscape.
Claire: Yes, Northern Calif. is an emotional landscape for me and my family.
Brian S: One of the few places I’ve lived where I would gladly move back, if I could afford it.
Claire: I’m in Houston, but my heart will always be in California.
Brian S: And Houston is, coincidentally enough, where I was born, though I moved from Texas when I was young.
Claire: Yes, I would love to live there if I could afford to and if my husband and I could find good paying jobs.
Camille D.: How about we start with that question. The loss in these poems is so palpable, but at the same time, there is this very present presence of past and place.
Claire: Yes, and hopefully there’s a sense of the future.
Camille D.: There is a sense of future. Especially with all those mentions of of your niece and nephew. I found those really interesting.
Claire: I wrote this book with them in mind.
Camille D.: Can you speak more about that?
Claire: They will have questions about our family.
Well, my father passed away on Sept. 27th, 2011. Vince and Emma know that Grandpa lived at Manzanar. I want them to know their family history. My mother’s parents were very good about telling me about their history. But in 2011, it’s difficult to sit the two down and say, “Let me tell you about our family. . .”
It just doesn’t happen that way. At least not in conversations.
Camille D.: Oh my goodness, Claire, that was so recent. My deep condolences to you. I’m actually amazed by your ability to be so clear headed in writing when you were in the midst of dealing with the loss so immediately.
Brian S: I liked the way you dealt with how kids pick up on things even when you don’t tell them, like in “At Seven and Nine, My Niece and Nephew Know.”
Let me add my condolences to Camille’s as well.
Claire: It’s been difficult, but I feel that my father is with my mother. He’s where he should be.
My parents were very close. They shared the same birthday. Sept. 21st.
Camille D.: I’ve been talking a lot to people about the need for poetry. One of the reasons I’ve presented is that it provides language for us in time of trauma or in sacred spaces like memorial services and weddings. But one of the other uses is that poetry can be such a fluent repository for history. It sounds like you have consciously used it in both these ways.
Claire: My father passed away one week after their birthday.
Camille D.: That’s my sister’s birthday, too. Gorgeous spirits came to us on that day.
Claire: Yes. I like the term gorgeous spirits.
Camille D.: You’re welcome to share it.
Brian S: Was there a sense, in that poem, that your mother’s illness caused them to grow up a little more quickly?
Claire: Yes, I do think it caused them to grow up.
Vincent had a profound understanding of my mother’s illness. Emma took a while to understand how serious my mother was. I guess my mother’s passing was their first experience with death.
Camille D.: People often ask me if they should scared about writing about and/or to people who are alive. There’s a real responsibility there. How did you face down that responsibility while you were writing?
Claire: There are things that Vince and Emma may forget with time. I wanted to capture them at certain ages.
Brian S: I would imagine it’s also difficult writing about relatives who have passed, since there’s a desire to tell and hear only the good things about them. Was that an issue for you?
Claire: No. My family embraces the negative and positive qualities of a person. In Snow White you have the seven dwarfs. One is grumpy, sleepy, etc. If someone is grouchy or ill-tempered, they don’t see that as a fault. It’s just the person’s personality. So I was labeled “the sensitive one.” That was who I was.
Brian S: There’s a moment in “Diamonds and Crane” where the conversation goes “Did you look back, did you write back?” and the response is “No. You ask too many questions,” which sort of brings us back to that question of how we tell our children our family stories. That’s always a problem, isn’t it?
Because we as adults don’t always want to give up our secrets.
Camille D.: Is that part of how you come to be able to write in such a balanced manner? I see that as a poetic way of seeing the world, seeing all its nuances. But I think you might be saying there is something perhaps cultural there. Or maybe not cultural but at least part of your family’s world view.
Claire: My grandmother was open about telling us things about my grandfather, but very discreet about her side of the family.
It’s cultural, yes.
Camille D.: And yet, even though you say it’s cultural, you also say you were marked as particularly sensitive.
Claire: I never thought of my writing as “balanced.” That’s interesting.
Yes, I remember that my mother told someone that I was the sensitive one. My mother, by contrast, was tough.
Camille D.: One of the things that drew me to your book is that is seemed to be two sides of the coin all the time. Brief, stanzas, big ideas. Florid descriptions, spare language. Eastern worldviews, Western materials.
Claire: So you mean it’s bi-cultural.
Camille D.: Will you talk a bit about your choice of forms. You range so much. I’m interested how much you are led by form or if the content drives the form or if and how your method varies.
Brian S: I get what Camille is saying, and I feel the same way. I’ve been considering assigning this book for a class I’m teaching in the spring which deals with culture and identity for just that reason.
Claire: I think that content drives the form.
I don’t think of myself as a form driven writer, even though I make use of forms like the villanelle, haiku, sestina. . .