On Peach State and crafting “the raw materials of circumstance”: An interview with poet Adrienne Su
Adrienne Su is the author of five poetry collections, including Having None of It, Living Quarters, and the most recent Peach State, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2021. Her work appears in many anthologies, including Vinegar & Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance, The Norton Introduction to Literature, Border Lines: Poems of Migration, and several volumes of Best American Poetry. Learn more about Su at https://adriennesu.ink/about.html
Mihaela Moscaliuc: Peach State delights at every level, including its tastes, aromas, and textures, and the poems’ insistence on naming them all with almost devotional precision. Reading the rosemary, sage, raspberry, tomatoes, and “Chinese parsley” poems from your previous collection, Living Quarters, made me crave more, so I was thrilled by the arrival of Peach State. The culinary and sensory feast to which we are treated here is also more than that. The collection delights as much as it instructs, in the best sense of the word. Embedded in the poems one finds insights into Chinese culinary traditions and their place in your family’s history in Atlanta, and anecdotes that illuminate the complexities of assimilation and acculturation. Then there are also those poems (including “That almond dessert,” “On the recommendation that adults consume no more than one-cup of rice, twice a week,” “Xiaolongbao,” “Name that restaurant”) that hold a mirror up to the dominant culture’s failure to do its part, the superficiality with which it (mis)appropriates, misnames, tokenizes. All this is done with tenderness and sometimes humor. How did these intertwined conversations about food, identity, place, and belonging emerge? Was it poem by poem? Did you anticipate, from the beginning, that what might start in passion for one thing might take you on so many intersecting journeys?
Adrienne Su: Thank you for this thoughtful question, and for connecting the two books. The answer is a little of everything. I had a broad sense of what I wanted Peach State to do, but many of the realizations and asides emerged poem by poem. Many times, I went around Atlanta juxtaposing what I saw with what I remembered from childhood. My daughters and I would go to Kung Fu Tea on Buford Highway and see it bustling with Asian customers and employees, and I’d marvel that when I was their age, you almost never bumped into another Asian person in a café – and in those days all the cafés gestured toward Europe, bubble tea was unknown, and Buford Highway was just a road. I knew that writing about food had tremendous potential but had no idea how far it could go; I don’t think I realized how useful the language of cookbooks and cooking instruction could be, nor did I expect to have so much fun with the language of eating. I also discovered that there is a lot of Chinese American food vocabulary, and that a fair amount of it resides in mainstream American discourse.
Mihaela Moscaliuc: Food holds memories, and writing about it can become a means of recovering the past or a history (with all its truths and myths) to which we have lost full access. Food activates nostalgia, and it may be also a way of staving off the process of forgetting, or of forgetting who we are, who we have become. I am thinking of “Black Sesame” in particular, but many of the poems do important work of ‘excavation.’ Did the writing of any of these poems surprise you with memories you did not know you had?
Adrienne Su: Yes! I had forgotten many small things, simply from not seeing them for many years, since they had fallen out of fashion or were no longer needed: canned fruit cocktail; hot dogs as a stand-in for Chinese sausage; ginger slices preserved in sherry. And while substitutions may have seemed like stopgap measures to the first generation, those foods were creating memories for that generation’s children, who experienced the food on their plates, not the food in someone else’s mind. I had also forgotten the Chinese carvings made of olive or peach pits, which returned for me late in the project, when the repeating motif of peaches prompted me to consider more modes in which the peach appears.
Mihaela Moscaliuc: I too had forgotten about the exquisite art form of pit-carving until reading “My Life in Peaches”– in which you mention the “tiny carvings/in tiny pits–//Buddhas, houses,// forests, fish.” Looking at the stunning pit carvings of some Chinese masters I wondered about parallels to poetic craft, and specifically to the craft of your poems. The raw material into which the poems are carved—subjects such as food, cooking, family, language, tradition—is sometimes as ordinary as fruit pits, but what you do with the material and within various constraints to lend such material malleable and surprising, is extraordinary. Peach State’s cornucopia of forms contains the villanelle, the ghazal, the sestina, the sonnet, along with poems of various stanzaic structures and prosodic scales, including pieces that lean toward prose poetry and lyrical essays, such as “Wakefulness” and “When I Said I Grew Up Speaking no Chinese, I was Forgetting These Words.” How do you see the relation between form and content? Did some of these poems find/call for their structure right away? Any examples of poems that were more reluctant and underwent experimentation?
Adrienne Su: Usually, the form emerges during the writing process; I seldom know what it’s going to be ahead of time. But “The Chow-Mein Years in Atlanta” had “villanelle” written all over it from the start. “Wakefulness” is secretly a sestina. It didn’t work in the traditional stanzas. The queen of sestinas, Sandra Beasley, helped me see that it would function better if formatted as a prose poem. I’m thrilled that you see so many possible names for the form of “When I Said I Grew Up Speaking no Chinese, I was Forgetting These Words”; I imagined it as a satirical glossary or “ingredients” section at the front or back of a cookbook.
Mihaela Moscaliuc: Is there a poem in Peach State that feels particularly important to you because of its content, function in the collection, the process of writing it, or for other reasons?
Adrienne Su: The first, “Substitutions,” or the last, “An Hour Later, You’re Hungry Again,” might be one of those. Their images capture some quality about family life that felt, in my early life, eternal and repeating. Peach State is a prolonged effort to fight the possibility that it is (was) not eternal.
Mihaela Moscaliuc: Do you think of Peach State as (also) poetry of place?
Adrienne Su: Yes! Some part of me never left my hometown, yet when I go there, I feel like both “stranger and native.” When I’m away, it takes on the imaginative potential created by having to fill in the details that don’t present themselves.
Mihaela Moscaliuc: One of my favorite pieces is “Everything That Can be Eaten” which is a feast in itself, but also an ode to resourcefulness. It is also a personal favorite because it returns me to those ‘hunger’ days in Romania when, forced to survive on potatoes, beans, and cabbage, invented so many ways to cook them, it never got boring.
I’m quoting the beginning here so readers may ‘taste’ it, but also as a way of asking you about cadence and music, both of which come from multiple sources in your poems, including alliteration, assonance, and playful internal and end rhyming. There’s the perfect hunger-shoulder and diagonal-animal, but also the internal cut and chestnut, the subtle chiming of lo mein—broccoli stem—can, the stir-fries and undersized, and more. Do you make most of these choices about soundwork/the poem’s soundscape in the process of drafting, or in the process of revision? What are the most exciting and/or challenging ways of making your lines sing?
Thus my peripatetic starving-artist years passed without hunger.
The always-unpopular chicken thighs and pork shoulder,
combined with un untranslatable pantry and daily effort,
made me richer, though unemployed, than an assistant professor.
Tofu, ruined for most by baking, quadrupled the meat in stir-fries.
No. 9 thin spaghetti could be lo mein, otherwise found in undersized
pouches under “ethnic.” Peeled broccoli stems, cut on the diagonal,
had the crispness of water chestnuts, minus the can. Picked animal
bones could be simmered into broth; to discard them was a crime.
Yesterday’s rice, fried with frozen peas, an egg, and yesterday’s ham,
made lunchtime new. (…)
Adrienne Su: I love that this poem brought back for you a time in your life in Romania with culinary parallels. In my process, choices about sound occur in both phases, but they are more accidental or unconscious in the early drafting stage. Revision is where sound is more deliberate – but not entirely, since much of revision is looking at the messy drafts and finding sound correspondences that seemed to have happened spontaneously. I think the most exciting and challenging aspect of sound is that not everyone agrees on what constitutes rhyme. I have been accused of writing unrhymed poems that I thought were rhymed, or semi-rhymed. But in the end, does what we call it matter?
Mihaela Moscaliuc: This reminds me of the time poet Michael Waters asked the late Maxine Kumin if she had a name for rhyming the final word of one line with the internal syllable of a following or preceding line. He captures the moment in his poem “Elegy with Strawberries”: “I asked Max, still swimming in her poem,/If there was a name for the device/In rhymed couplets of slanting/The final word of one line/With the internal syllables of the next.//Dipping the nippled fruit/Into its saucer of powdered sugar,/She tensed her brow in concentration,/ Yes, she grinned, pleased/With her answer: Desperation!”
Maxine found form and formal gestures freeing. “The tougher the form,” she said, “the easier it is for me to handle the poem, because the form gives permission to be very gut honest.” Do you find form freeing? And do you have a special name for your ingenuous rhyming?
Adrienne Su: Maxine Kumin is in my pantheon. I was lucky to have hosted her visit to Dickinson College in 2009. And I love the name she uses and how Michael Waters captures it in his poem! I’ve never thought to name my own means of rhyming and am honored that you think it might deserve one. If I had to think of a name, I might suggest “approximation” or “echoing” – though “desperation” is about as accurate as it gets.
I feel a keen affinity with Kumin’s ideas about form: I too find it freeing. I do it as much for the writing process as for the product – maybe even more for the process. Having to rhyme or repeat at set points stops me from moving too logically from one point to the next; it prompts more leaping, more remote association, more surprise.
Mihaela Moscaliuc: Your poems (“Doughnuts” among them) mention daughters. I know poetry is not autobiography, and that was one of my first poetry lessons. When I asked Ilya Kaminsky, one of my first mentors, how his son was (the son referenced in one of his poems), he laughed kindly and said he had no son, and that was our first lesson about poetry. So, if you do have daughters: How do you manage parenting and writing? Do you see writing also as a way of preserving and passing on a heritage that records narratives of origin but also narratives of transformation, of cultural alchemy?
Adrienne Su: That’s a useful anecdote! Family members who appear in my poems are to some extent fictionalized, as is the persona of the speaking “poet.” But I do have daughters.
One major difference between parenting and writing is the relationship to time. Parenting, especially when children are young, is immediate and all about action – though you do have to be careful what you say because it can be misheard and/or make a lasting impression. Writing is about the long term, beyond the writer’s lifetime, one hopes, and while you also have to be careful what you say, you also have to be less careful; it’s important to have a degree of abandon, of getting past “what will people think of me?” and imagine the day everyone you know no longer walks on this earth.
When I started writing, I was too young to imagine myself as a parent, but now I can see writing as you describe it in the last question. Poems can operate like family photographs, recording what you so aptly call “narratives of origin,” but the power of poetry is that the faces in the photographs, the surroundings, the circumstances, change according to the reader, even – especially – when the poem makes those things specific.
Mihaela Moscaliuc: We are so excited to feature six new poems, some of them set in the context of the pandemic, some deepening into conversations on food, family, history, politics, and drawing attention to various interconnection. Are you working on a new collection? Are there central themes toward which the new poems gravitate?
Adrienne Su: It’s hard to generalize at this point, but they are poems about loss or potential loss. Maybe all poems are, but I’m driven at this moment to think about memory: not just the way it functions – as a mixture of recalling and imagining – but also how it operates in the context of migration and illness (memory loss). Dementia is a terrible disease with pockets of mercy; migration always involves the memory of one or the other country; my family has been affected by both. As students, most of us wish for photographic memory, but in life, it’s important to be able to forget some things.
How to Cut a Pineapple
Lop off the crown and base.
Stand it up and thinly slice the skin
away in strips; the eyes can stay.
Lay the fruit on its side, then follow
the path of the eyes, taking them out
in slivers, for a golden barber’s pole,
turning as you go, until the fruit is blind.
Stand it up again, cut through the core,
then lay the halves on flat sides
and cut top to bottom. The rest is easy:
sever the core from each quarter
and slice. The pieces fan out nicely
on a platter, keep for days in the fridge.
The method isn’t quick. It’s easier
to cut thick wedge after thick wedge
and call it done, but once you’ve seen
the curving stripes, you understand
how inchoate your life has been.
To grow a pineapple takes two years,
but when they’re $2.99, dependably sweet,
and everywhere, you might not care.
For over a decade, I didn’t, either;
my kids were young, my books
unwritten. At the time, my father,
who taught me how, could still
cut, slice, serve, and let me be
the profligate American to his frugal
Chinese, although he may have quit
the art by then. Faced with a pineapple now,
I automatically revisit
the years when I had four grandparents.
Too young to grasp why two, though alive,
could never be seen, I took for granted
that what I knew of them was my father’s
description of their love
for what the earth had to offer.
That they couldn’t be reached
made them mythical, godlike.
Now he, too, can’t be reached.
One day I may regret the exorbitant
hours I spend in kitchens,
but they express my temperament:
unable to tune out predecessors
or the threat of want,
inclined to explain to others
how to wield a knife in times of grief
or the prospect of grief,
when you still have to eat.
Twenty-six on 2020
Anti-bat committees developed early.
Functioning grownups hoarded
ibuprofen, jerky, kayaks, lentils, Merlot.
Newspapers ostracized pangolins;
questionable rulers silenced teachers.
Underdogs vied with xenophobes.
When the novel coronavirus emerged in China,
China crushed it by being draconian:
resist, and have your door nailed shut;
cough, and be whisked to a triage gymnasium.
In academe, my first boss was a woman
who said female professors need draconian
policies – anyone who doesn’t do every assignment
fails the course – or students won’t listen.
My first F went to a straight-A young woman
who forgot the final. She accepted the draconian
consequence, said she was at fault. I respect her
but see it as proof of the old Chinese maxim
The law creates the crime. My rules have relaxed.
It takes too much breathing of fire to be draconian.
It’s much less painful to respond ad hoc,
by patchwork, citing respect for freedom
even if cheaters or microbes get through.
As a child I didn’t know my dad was draconian
in his classroom, enough to be nicknamed
Killer Su. I should have asked him why and when,
but I tend to assume it matters more
in engineering, where being insufficiently draconian
could result in a car that explodes, whereas
in writing class, it’s only the degradation
of language at stake, the creep of “relatable,”
“collateral damage.” What could a lone draconian
English teacher do to stop the spread?
It’s true, if we all stood together, the nation
might be more literate, but would we still be sick?
The virus, had it wanted to be more draconian,
could have launched itself here but, for reasons
unknown, entered in the land of the dragon.
Pantoum of the Great Wall
“Simply by going on and on / We managed … And time went by, drawn by slow horses.”
— Donald Justice, “Pantoum of the Great Depression”
Traveling armies, in need of food and clothing
had occupied the nation. Recently expelled,
their forces kept trying the border. With labor and engineering,
the government worked up its barrier, snakelike symbol
of a sovereign nation ready to repel
invading horsemen. Although the construction
seldom worked as a barrier, it took shape as a symbol
of imperial will, sending laborers to perdition,
inconveniencing horsemen, and requiring construction
to simply go on and on, like a chronic illness
of imperial will. Sending laborers to perdition,
it was rumored to be made, in part, of corpses,
as work went on and on despite accidents, illness.
Tourism started later; who wouldn’t pay to view
a ruin said to be made, in part, of corpses?
Even during building, the common people knew
the wall might be an error. Each tower, with a view
of the steppe, housed a sentry so far from his familiars,
he’d talk to the building. With provisions and people few,
it was worth befriending strangers
from the steppe, who might give a sentry, however unfamiliar,
a pelt, a bowl of soup, or conversation if not goods.
Not only did befriending strangers
help time go by, marked by the sound of hooves,
but soup led to contemplation of mutual good,
even the joining of families, despite the intention
of watching time go by, alert to the sound of hooves
from abroad. The wall took the form of sections,
never joined as one obstacle. If the intention
was to divide the civilized from the barbarian,
it’s odd that the wall took the form of sections,
whose doors a sentry, if he pleased, could open.
While it stood, people both civilized and barbarian
were forced to try the border with labor and engineering
or with pleas at a door a sentry could open
for an unarmed traveler in need of food and clothing.
What is a home without its dog?
Order, ease, the option not to walk,
yard where you don’t watch your step.
Those who never had time for pets
point out your freedom, as if
you hadn’t known the conditions
for which you signed on.
Yes, there had been frustration,
the walk as prerequisite
to anything you wanted
to do, trips canceled
or never scheduled,
of the scoop, the vacuum.
As with a baby,
you felt the distance from family.
But what looked like lost time
was time out of time.
Your offenses, at minimum,
were harsh, being human.
Oblivious to minutes,
the forgiveness was infinite.
What did they do all day?
All we knew: count them out
until dinner’s underway,
except on the oddball days
they did the afternoon carpool,
which meant we could lobby
for an ice-cream stop.
A dad who had had a good day,
or a bad one, might give in.
We had to find his weakness:
maybe he’d want to delay
getting home, or had had all
he could take of being
official, in a weekday way,
or needed a break
from the acrid tastes
of what men consumed.
He could get a cone, too,
not the wimpy kid-size
a mom might take
but two scoops, dipped,
even a sundae: all was in play
on a midweek afternoon.
We couldn’t say
why the hour felt so free,
only that it swayed
between work and life
like not being fully awake,
and we, feeling without
knowing, could still partake.
[Photo credit: Guy Freeman]
Adrienne Su is the author of five books of poems: Peach State (2021), Living Quarters (2015), Having None of It (2009), Sanctuary (2006), and Middle Kingdom (1997). Her work appears in many anthologies, including Vinegar & Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance, The Norton Introduction to Literature, Border Lines: Poems of Migration, and several volumes of Best American Poetry. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she is professor of creative writing and poet-in-residence at Dickinson College. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Barbara Deming Foundation grant, and residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, The Frost Place, The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Since 2000, she has been Poet-in-residence and creative writing professor at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.