Anna Maria Hong on the Subversive Sonnet and Being a Literary 'Edge Lord'
Poet and fiction writer Anna Maria Hong. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell.
Anna Maria Hong will be joining the Literature faculty at Bennington in the fall of '18 as part of the most exciting influx of talent at one time that the College seen in many years. Hong is a spellbinding poet and fiction writer; she studied philosophy at Yale University and has an MFA in creative writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Hong was a Bunting Fellow in Poetry at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2010-2011, and she has received residency fellowships from Yaddo, Djerassi, Fundación Valparaíso, and Kunstnarhuset Messen.
With two new books published this spring—her poetry collection Age of Glass (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) and the novella H & G (Sidebrow Books)—Literary Bennington reached out to Hong to discuss her influences, the rigors of the sonnet form, and the classes that she’s planning on teaching this fall at Bennington.
LB: Who are the top three poets who have had the greatest influence on you and in what way?
AMH: I first became intrigued by the sonnet as a vehicle for political and personal expression by reading the great sonnets of W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, and other 20th-century Irish poets, and those poets shaped my thinking about how writing in form can be harnessed to enhance meaning. Those readings also led me to other poets who have invoked the sonnet for subversive purpose, particularly feminist poets and poets of color such as Marilyn Nelson, Adrienne Rich, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other supple sonneteers like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Elizabeth Browning.
While doing my MFA, I also worked with amazing poets including Khaled Mattawa, Heather McHugh, and Denis Johnson, whose poetry and presence spurred me to hone my political thinking and lean more into wordplay and raw emotionality in writing poetry and fiction.
LB: How have fairy tales influenced your poetry collection Age of Glass?
AMH: Fairy tales, folktales, and myths from different cultures inform much of Age of Glass, as one of my strategies in that collection was rewriting what I think of as “received tales” to imbue the female characters with more agency, idiosyncrasy, and rage than they enact in the original stories, which emphasize plot over characterization.
The collection also concerns the strangeness of living in this moment in a failing empire at the beginning of the 21st century, as we speed toward apocalypse. Fairy tales, with their promise of happy endings following calamity and casually deployed violence (Cinderella’s step-sisters have to cut off parts of their feet to “fit” the glass slipper, Rapunzel’s suitor is blinded by thorns after being flung from the Tower to name just a couple examples) dovetail nicely with this subject as well.
LB: Why do you prefer the sonnet over other forms of poetry? Do you consider yourself a formalist poet?
The sonnet suits my temperament. I can’t imagine working in another form so extensively, and I don’t relish working in traditional closed forms in general. My natural mode seems to be argument, and I do think the sonnet lends itself to rhetorical thinking in both the situation/response structure of the Italian form and the stanza-by-stanza building toward pithy statement in the couplet of the Elizabethan/Shakespearean version.
I also like the rigor of the form, as one of the pleasures of inhabiting the sonnet is in interrogating it: bending and torqueing and pushing back against the language that the form elicits through its exacting requirements in meter and rhyme.
I also like the musicality that the form affords and that the sonnet lends itself to long form in serialization or sonnet sequences. Serial form or working with some type of constraint with variation in an extended manner is my most consistently favored mode thus far.
LB: What should students taking your Korean American Feminist Poetry class at Bennington in the Fall expect?
AMH: This is a really exciting time for Korean American feminist and female poets! There’s been a recent burgeoning of notable collections by KAFPs including Myung Mi Kim, Monica Youn, Don Mee Choi, Arlene Kim, E.J. Koh, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Franny Choi, and Emily Yoon. We’ll be reading and analyzing their collections as well as the poems of KAFPs whose first books have yet to be published such as Youna Kwak and Sarah Richards-Graba, and because I know many of these writers, students will also conduct interviews with the poets to gain insight into their work.
I’d love for students to gain a sense of what’s possible for contemporary feminist poets of color, the breadth of approaches one can take to addressing race and gender and other aspects of identity in poetry now, and intimate knowledge of the diversity in style and subject that animates what one might think of as a small group. We’ll also investigate the influence of organizations such as Kundiman and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in fostering the work of young Asian Pacific Islander American writers.
LB: In what ways did you hope to build upon the original Hansel and Gretel narrative when writing H & G?
AMH: When I began drafting H & G, I didn’t have any particular goals in mind except to employ the tale as a constraint, giving myself permission to tell the tale from different points of view, in different styles, and with different outcomes for the characters in each short chapter.
However, it did always bother me that in the original tale, the children just go home after miraculously and boldly escaping being eaten by the witch and after being cast out into the Woods, not once but twice by their father and step-mother, so I had new endings in mind from the start, with G. or the Gretel character and sometimes both children setting off on their own following their escape from the candy house.
The novella also explores the effects of patriarchy and misogyny on the characters and the gendered choices that each character makes under these conditions. In the original fairy tale, the boy and the girl are treated differently even as they both face being eaten by the witch—and they respond to peril differently with G. taking decisive action to dispense with the witch and free herself and her brother. I extrapolated from those actions, as well as observations and experiences from my own life, to imagine what these characters would do as adolescents and adults following what I see as a tale of domestic trauma and tragedy.
LB: Have other contemporary fairy tale writers, such as Angela Carter or Robert Coover, had any influence on your own work?
AMH: Almost certainly. I’m a big fan of Carter’s reinventions of fairy tales as well as A.S. Byatt’s, Anne Carson’s, Rita Dove’s, and Natsuo Kirino’s retellings of myth and folktale. I’ve taught all of these writers’ works multiple times in my myth and fairy tale in contemporary literature course, and I’ve learned a great deal from their diverse approaches to feminist revisioning of the old stories.
A friend of mine recently remarked that a line from H & G reminded her of Octavia Butler’s work, and I would say that I’ve also been influenced by writers who work in the speculative fiction vein but who don’t necessarily retell myth and fairy tale.
I’ll take my friend’s comment as high praise in any case. It’s up there with the assessment of another friend’s 13-year-old daughter who called me an “edge lord” after reading H & G, which is my favorite review to date. She also told her dad that H & G was “not for kids,” which is absolutely true.