Poet Cathy Park Hong
Like so many other extraordinary contemporary poets, I had never heard of Cathy Park Hong before I came to Bennington. So when I stepped into the Cricket Hill barn to take her master class, “Speculative Poetics: Inventing Worlds and Languages,” I had no idea what to expect. I found the description of the course intriguing—I had never heard of the term “speculative poetics.” Aside from the classroom itself, this was unexplored territory for me. It didn’t take long for me to become enthralled in Cathy’s discussion of the “boundless dream” of speculative poetry, or the poetry of estrangement, and its explicit link with memory and time. The concept of the invented city, for instance, is also related to the concept of the imagined homeland. When one is estranged from their homeland, they begin to fictionalize that homeland—they build it up again with memories. As it is impossible to remember something in the same exact way twice, these memories become false over time. Cathy linked these ideas to poetry seamlessly—“the lyric is also a form of forgetting.” When we chisel a poem, those things we might have thought important are forgotten and what is left on the page is memory. In turn, we use memory to realize it is what makes up our lives. Her command of the discussion was equally hypnotic. Cathy brought a sense of humor to an otherwise dense subject. Her knowledge is vast, but unlike so many of the erudite, she was incredibly down-to-earth and approachable.
In class, we read several examples of both invented worlds and invented languages with selections from Wallace Stevens, Matthea Harvey, Jillian Weise, and Latasha Diggs. We discussed the poetic technique of code-switching—using different registers of diction (or different languages altogether) depending on context—and how it also creates a speculative poem. For example, in Latasha Diggs’s “Pistology,” the speaker uses Japanese, Spanish, and English to create a sense of humorous estrangement (translation in italics):
anata wa absorb my peripherals, you absorb my peripherals,
contrasting en medio real time y contrasting between real time and
Buffy la matar de vampire. Buffy the vampire slayer.
azucarado reflection of stale tecnologia.
sweet reflection of stale technology.
While we as the readers of the poem are lucky to have a translation of each line (something uncommon for Diggs to provide), the result is nevertheless the same on the page. Certain foreign phrases are easily discernable like the line about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the word “tecnologia.” Others like “anata wa” and “azucarado” are not unless one knows that language. The effect is speculative in that the reader has to navigate an entirely foreign terrain of tongues despite its familiarity. Its familiarity, however, is arguably what makes it so strange—it opens up the possibility of comparison to what is recognizable and what is not.
For our in-class exercise, Cathy had all of us forget all grammar rules and free-write whatever came to our minds for seven minutes. After we had finished, we read our pieces out loud to each other—the effect was both humorous and enlightening. Some students wrote what sounded like computer codes, and others used words out of their traditional contexts and syntax. Regardless of what we chose to do on the page, we were left with the same sensation of estrangement from language.
When I went to Cathy’s reading that night, the ideas brought up in her class still lingered on my mind. The setting of her work held that same eerie sense of estrangement, but it took that idea one step further as the setting melded itself to language. The sonic fluidity of Cathy’s work reverberated throughout Tishman as she carried us through each poem with an engaging, melodic voice. Her inflection was impeccable. I never felt lost in that endless drone of poet-voice that so many of our guest readers employ. Instead, I found myself in a new place with each reading. Her fable poem, “Last Untouched Town,” was especially striking with its dystopian feel and points of sonic loss.
In addition to her poetry, Cathy read from a collection of new essays she has been working on involving the realm of comedy—specifically the comedy of Richard Pryor. I won’t deny that at first I was disappointed with this change. I felt so awestruck by her poetry that I wanted more of it. That feeling quickly dissipated, however, as soon as she began reading her prose. She examined the realm of stand-up comedy and its relationship with the poetic world, the challenges that both the comic and poet face, as well as their differences. The comic, for instance, must rely on what Cathy called “the punctuation of laughter” in order for their work to be considered a success. There is an active engagement from the audience that is seemingly nonexistent for a poet whose work must stand alone on the page. Her discussion of poets and the institution they cater to was incredibly heartfelt and enlightening. Our work as poets can seem so fixated on impressing an admissions committee for an MFA program or jury for a contest or fellowship we desperately hope to win in order to further our careers that it seems easy to forget ourselves along the way. As a graduating senior, I couldn’t help but analyze my own goals as a writer after hearing Cathy’s discussion of these topics.
I had the pleasure of having lunch with Cathy the next day. She shared some of her own teaching and learning experiences with me and other Bennington students. The pros and cons of pursuing graduate study in poetry and what the implications of the institution can mean—more or less the risk of sounding like every other student graduating from the same program, or being molded in a way you may not have wanted. Despite the importance of such conversation topics, it remained light-hearted and entertaining. In the true Bennington spirit, learning did not feel like learning—it felt like another life experience, one that leaves its mark to let you know that you won’t ever be quite the same.