In Conversation with Ray Hsu: A Collaborative discourse

The first part of this interview appears in "Out of Line," the Fall 2015 issue of CV2. The interview is continued here.

Joey Armstrong

Clarise Foster: Do you think that part of the problem with publishing a collaboration like the Nepotists might be that within writing and publishing circles, there seems to be an understanding of collaboration as two or more people who bring their talents and skills together to create a project. Whereas with a collaborative work like yours, there is an understanding of project as the constraint rather than the creative attributes of the artists involved.

Ray Hsu: I think collaboration could definitely be articulated in publishing—in terms of ideas of publishing credit. For example in the academy, the notion of who gets credit for a publication matters in terms of whether or not people get jobs—whether people get their share of resources. I think that’s one of the reasons it goes pretty deep for publishing, for the academy, for lots of different structures including law, if we are talking about intellectual property like patents. But it is not only because there is a lot of money at stake but also perhaps more importantly, cultural capital—that’s the fuel on which publishing and the academy runs. Cultural capital is huge, especially in literary publishing.

CF: In terms of cultural capital, collaboration on a certain level involves giving away your individual cultural wealth to others. Poets have so little “wealth.” What is so important to you about this kind of sharing?

RH: Can we imagine the kinds of value that we have to offer to other people, like the idea of giving away one’s cultural capital? Yes, it could be tremendously undermining to give away the cultural capital that we need to advance our careers as poets or as writers or as publishers. But can we imagine a moment let’s say an entrepreneur or someone else who might seem to be in a vastly different field. They might actually value something that we have to offer as poets—what could that possibly be?

So Simon Fraser University one day unveils that its Centre for Contemporary Art is now the Goldcorp Centre for Contemporary Arts. Goldcorp is a Canadian international mining company. Lots of people who were working in the building, like contemporary artists, were up in arms—saying What! We weren’t even consulted about this. Goldcorp paid, from what I recall, twenty million dollars to have the naming rights for the centre. Now, why would Goldcorp want their name on a centre for contemporary art? What does this say about contemporary art? It could have and I think that it or another mining company did put a lot of money into the naming rights for an arm of UBC earth sciences—that makes sense—a mining company, earth sciences. Why contemporary art? Now there is a friend of mine, Stanley, who teaches at the Schulich School of Business at York University. Based on the last time we talked, what he does all day is look at paintings and read Shakespeare. Why does a business professor do that? It’s because he studies something called “legitimation,” which is the process by which an international company can only set up shop in another country if it has the cultural capital to do so. So that’s why he does that—that’s why he studies these works of art all day.

And so we might say that the Goldcorp Centre for Contemporary Art is a part of this. When we as artists, as administrators, as people who are part of the arts—if we feel as if we are begging for money from companies, from funders, from government and that we are just really lucky to get that money, then we don’t understand what we are giving in exchange—we often don’t even see it as an exchange at all. We don’t often understand that in fact, prestige and reputation, legitimation—that’s all cultural capital and that is capital that is exchangeable for financial capital. So if we understand them as different forms of capital, one of the things we are steeped in is being able to manage capital, i.e. cultural capital. We are managing cultural capital when we are busy trying to expand our bios, making it from a few sentences to a page-long bio. Or when we are trying to figure out which three journals, which three top journals to add to our CV. Or when we highlight the most prestigious place that we teach in our bio. This is all very sophisticated management of cultural capital. I don’t think we realize, there’s that “we” again, just how sophisticated we are at being asset managers. It just so happens that these assets are cultural assets.

CF: I think a lot of people would be surprised that a large multi-national mining corporation like Goldcorp needs/desires cultural cache. It is interesting that cultural reputation, that an association with art, even creative writing, can be so valuable.

RH: I couldn’t have gotten better training in economics, in capitalism, as I did as a student, and especially as a faculty member. I remember a conversation when I was still a student and I was talking to a faculty member in the creative writing program. And I remember saying, “I can’t wait until I’m a faculty member because then I will get to talk about art all day.” And the professor said, “We don’t talk about art all day.” And I asked him then what do you talk about all day and he responded by saying, “How to expand the reputation of the program.” And I was like, What? I didn’t get it—I didn’t get it for a long time. It wasn’t until I became a faculty member myself that I realized, “Wait a second, he’s right.” Because specializations are such that I’m not a trained playwright, I can’t really geek out with my playwriting colleague down the hall. It’s like a novelist colleague might not feel that he or she knows enough about poetry to talk to me about poetry. What we share as a common project is how to advance the reputation of the program.

CF: Do you see the audience that Canadian poets traditionally write for as a “constraint” you are working against? Who you want to reach?

RH: So there are few things, one is pushing readership. I think there are certain things that readerships within poetry circles—there are some folks that push back. I think that there are people doing very interesting work with poetry that lead to other readerships, like for example Mark Novak. I remember when there were some mining disasters that happened, I think in the UK as well as in China. He was on the BBC being interviewed about the mining disasters and there was a caption that ran along the bottom of the picture: Mark Novak, author of Coal Mountain Elementary. Now it did not say a book of poetry, it just identified him basically as an expert and this is why Mark Novak is here talking to you about mining disasters. That’s like a poet breaking out of the book section of whatever national newspaper has a books section these days. Breaking out of the arts section, breaking out of the entertainment section and landing on the front page.

I remember when Tony Harrison was asked by a major newspaper to write a poem, and he responded that if he was going to write a poem for them then it wasn’t going to appear in the arts section, it was going to appear on the front page, and they said really, okay. So what they did was they gave him a flack vest and he travelled along with embedded journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the fighting and he wrote a poem alongside the embedded journalists and that ended up on the front page. These are folks that for whatever reason, intentionally or not, are not in the book section and these are moments when readerships for poetry are different. How did they do that? Is that the thing we want? Or are we as poets content to live our lives in the book section writing for other poets? And why? I am not saying it is a bad thing, but why?

CF: What role has your cultural background played in the evolution of your poetic practice?

RH: That is a really interesting question in so far as identity—something like Asian Canadian-ness or Asian-ness or Chinese-ness, although Asian-ness or Asian Canadian-ness is something that is more frequently used. Often these are categories that are how I am interpolated. People call me out as that thing and then I turn and I look and I notice—yeah I guess that’s me. Interesting work can happen through that category. Interpreting it through that category and articulating it through that category is kind of like, Yes, (in booming self-important voice) I am an Asian Canadian writer or something like that. But it’s got its own straight jackety things around it too. It can be tremendously constraining. When I was working as an editor for Rice Paper Magazine, people would send in stuff that seemed terribly hmm… clichéd? They seemed to be stuck in a mould of what Asian Canadian writing was for a very long time and sometimes I would pick up the phone and I would call the writers and contributors and ask them to tell me more about their submissions. I would ask them, why did you write this? So many times they would respond with, “Oh, I thought this is what you wanted. I looked at past issues of this and this was the kind of thing I thought you wanted so I changed the characters so they would be ‘Asian.’” And that seemed to me rather striking. Or not even that they necessarily “changed it,” but maybe they made certain things more explicit. It has been super interesting talking to writers who don’t want to necessarily foreground—make the story or make the poem or make the piece all about their Asian-ness, their Asian Canadian-ness or something like that. And I think that is also true of my own work. I would say that I probably I buck against those conventions a lot.

I did this one performance; it was before I was editor of Rice Paper. I was invited to do a reading for the launch of an issue—it was a special issue on food. One of the things I was bucking against was the convention of a framing narrative in which multiple generations of a family are sitting around the table eating food and then each of them have flashbacks. This is this a super conventional narrative about being “Asian Canadian.” So I do this performance in which I say “Asian Canadian Literature” and then I talk about these conventions. Then I eat pieces of my book—I tear out pages from my book and I start eating them. I pour some soy sauce on them. Then I start dumping soy sauce on myself and do this stupid little dance. It was an expression of my exhaustion with the category of Asian Canadian and the things that came with it and the things that one might feel expected to do under that category. And the thing was, there was someone else who read a story during that launch that was exactly that framing narrative and I hadn’t realized that that would happen. So it actually felt far more self-reflexive than even I felt comfortable with. Because it was almost as if I knew this was going to happen, when I didn’t. But that’s how prevalent it is.

CF: During the presentation you gave at the University of Winnipeg last year a member of the audience offered a very cliché observation/question about Asian culture and philosophic sensibility.  It was a palpably awkward moment for the audience and yet you responded with a great deal of patience and grace.

RH: I think what’s interesting about moments like that is that I am reminded that sometimes I have the privilege of forgetting. Because of the way that I talk or the way that I use language I can forget for a moment my otherness because of the access to the power I have through language. One might say I am unaccented in many of the contexts in which I move. I think about conversations that I have had with Sam Chuk around Asian Canadian-ness and I remember a question that he asked me once. He asked, “Ray, do you feel compelled, to write about cherry blossoms?” I am not sure whether he meant it as a half joke, in so far as what cherry blossoms represent. But I remember responding to him, “No, I actually don’t feel that pressure.” I think what he was tapping into was a similar thing to what those writers felt when they were trying to write something that Rice Paper would want. To have access to power one must self-represent one’s otherness in a certain way that isn’t also an otherness. It is a certain way of belonging—of being included in a way that is highly constrained. And I can forget that some people because of “accents” can feel consistently other in ways that I don’t. And when I am reminded, “Oh, yeah it’s like my skin—my embodiment,” it also reminds me of ways in which we might be able to do new things with that category of otherness. Things I was trying to do when I was more active or at least more stereotypically active within Asian North American organizing. I think now I am excluded to a large extent from that kind of organizing because of the ways in which I don’t play by the rules that are legible.

CF: What is your vision for your work? So ultimately, what do you want your poetry to do?

RH: One of the ways that I have answered that question before is that if there were a series of levers and each poem was a lever that I was pulling—each book a lever I would pull—the last lever that I would pull would be the redistribution of wealth. That is one of the ways in which I have answered that question. Thank you for asking it, not many people do, which in and of itself says something and if we were once again to think about collaboration in this context. What is that we might want collaboration to do? And I think this is where I bump into quite a few artists, also scholars, who would love to do something but they don’t feel that they have the skill sets in order to pull it off. They are like, “We’re each going to leave it up to, I don’t know, we’re going to leave it up to hackers”—something like that. To do that kind of work that we think is really cool, really revolutionary—“I would love to do that but shucks all I can do is write a poem, or what I can do is write a peer-review article.” I think perhaps this is one of the reasons that collaboration can be tremendously exciting. We can throw our hands up in surrender if we feel we need to individualize within ourselves all the skill sets that we need in order to accomplish the things that we want.

I remember an advisor once called me, I think in an admiring way, a renaissance man. I have been turning that over in my head—thinking what did he mean by that? For one thing he meant that I was both a scholar and a poet and maybe other things too. But the thing is that I think about the value that we place on the idea of the renaissance person. Like once upon a time there was a moment when bodies of knowledge were small enough that we could comprehend them all and we could comprehend multiple ones. We might use poly-math in the same way now with the sense of wonder. When really I think that speaks to evaluation—assumption of individualism. That we need to internalize bodies of knowledge that we feel as if they are too vast now to be able to master and I think that that can lead to despair, so long as we stick to the idea of individual-ness.

If we are collaborating, I can collaborate with someone who has spent his or her life studying music, or spent his or her life studying computer science. I can collaborate with that person and we can accomplish amazing things that I could never have imagined on my own. We can co-conceptualize things that I never would have thought of from the outset. This is the reason we no longer need the idea of renaissance people. And that is one of the reasons collaboration can be so exciting, because we don’t have to give into despair that we can’t have the kind of change that we want or the kinds of impact that we want.

CF: With your involvement in Art Song Lab at UBC—which functions as an interdisciplinary platform for partners, writers and composers to create fusions in the genre of art song alongside performers—poetry is taken into a different environment. But the appreciation of new ways of poetry and new ways of collaboration takes a while.

RH: One of the interesting things about Art Song Lab is that it is also a laboratory for collaboration and so we see many different kinds of collaboration. We try our best not to dictate what counts as good collaboration. For example some people will collaborate with very much a conveyor belt approach. It’s like I do my part of the widget, and then it goes down the conveyor belt, someone else does their part and so on. To some extent that can be seen as efficient, but there is not a lot of back and forth and it is a relatively uncomplicated, autonomous process. And then there are other folks where there is more back and forth. But one of the things that we encounter a lot is the insecurity around musical training. Many poets will say, “I’m not a musician, I’m not a composer.” I am guilty of this too, actually. I will find “but I am not a musician” dropping out of my mouth every now and then. To help overcome insecurities about collaborating with different disciplines we’ve done a workshop at Art Song Lab where we attempted to come up with an art song collectively—roughly within the span of an hour. We had a room with poets, composers and performers. In order to come up with the song we started by having the composers come up with words. I think there was a bit of nervousness from the composers about the words. And then when we were trying to come up with the music the composers very smartly turned it back on the poets and then the poets were scared. I was scared—how am I going to come up with music? The composers told the poets to go up to the piano and hit some notes and that is how the creation of the music would start. In the end it seemed like we came up with a mess but it was really fun. That experience helped us confront our own insecurities around the division of knowledge labour. You know, I am not a specialist so I can’t say anything about it.

I think we can have more of a back and forth in the collaborative process and sometimes people manage that even with their insecurities—moving outside their own identities. And still others will do something that seems to depart from both poetry and composition and end up with something that really seems very un-art song-like. It doesn’t seem to divide easily into composition, poetry or performance for that matter. Those are very exciting as well. So anyway, at Art Song Lab we see a range of different people experimenting with collaboration, from more traditional to other extremely innovative projects.

CF: And you were one of the original founders of Art Song Lab?

RH: Yes I was, along with Michael Park and Alison Demato. Michael and I co-directed and Alison joined very early, after the first performance—she was one of the performers. It’s a triumvirate you could say.

CF: There is a line in Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon that I keep thinking about as we talk: “This us is our art, is us and isn’t.” There is a subversive undercurrent in your work that I find more fully articulated in our conversation.

RH: Let me elaborate. First off in terms of a “we” I think there are ways in which the undoing and also the reconstruction of it—I think there are times and places when a “we” is very important. And I would say for example under conditions of democracy in which there are groups that are excluded from power. Saying that there is a “we” can be tremendously powerful. Let’s say that women are historically excluded from public spheres, public deliberation, policy; then it is very powerful to say no, there is a “we,” and the “we” is women. And in that moment people could be very, very different from each other, but there is something tremendously useful in a time and place about what is strategic essentialism. We are we in this moment when it really matters in the same way that people who historically who have been targeted by immigration law—immigration exclusion—might say wait a second, Chinese is very different from Japanese, very different from Korean, very different from Hmong, very different from Vietnamese, but at the same time we have all been targeted by the same exclusionary immigration laws; therefore, the “we” that constitutes Asian-Canadian-ness makes sense in the here and now because we all do share something—being targeted by law. So even though we might have very different experiences, I think this is where Asian Canadian literature and other kinds of categories might invite people into a trap, which is thinking that there is in fact something under the surface. That we all magically share some sort of deep mystical experience. And one might say this of other categories too, such as yes, all of us women share this one magical experience. I don’t necessarily feel like I share some sort of magical experience with the person that looks like me, who is standing right beside me. But the thing that we do share is a time and place and the ways in which we are treated by society. It is a negative kind of belonging. So with strategic essentialism, that “we” can be tremendously useful. In a time and a place the “we” ought to be historical rather than transcendent. Speaking of transcendent, you mentioned getting beyond the cultural—and I think that is very interesting idea—because perhaps by training I am trained to see the cultural as the be-all and end-all.

I think that one of the things that is very interesting is—whether or not it is possible—going back to Audre Lorde, to use the master’s tools in order to dismantle the master’s house. I think this also goes for some of the questions you have been asking around categories of Asian-ness and literature, for that matter. What are the things we want to do in order to push toward the kinds of worlds that we want?

CF: You are involved in a lot of different groups: you are the literary curator for the Queer Arts Festival, you are the artistic director of Visible Verse and you are still connected to Art Song Lab. So I imagine there are creative aspects to all of these activities, but they are primarily cultural administration, and in listening to you talk about cultural capital I am beginning to think that this is part of your art/creative practice.

RH: Yeah, sometimes when I am hanging out with entrepreneurs or I am at some kind of networking event or something like that, people will ask, “So what do you do?” And I will say, “I’m a cultural capitalist.” And people do this social double take. It’s tongue-in-cheek but it’s a half joke. Because one of the things I want to express is this is one of the most perversely true things I can say about being a part of the literary world: I have been immensely trained to be a cultural capitalist to be able to manage cultural capital and to be able to broker the exchange rate between cultural capital and financial capital.

CF: I read an article in preparation for this interview—it was an article about you that appeared in The Rusty Toque a few years ago. I was wondering about the headline to the interview, which read “Ray Hsu: The worst thing to happen to poetry.” I read the interview but I couldn’t really figure out the rationale for the headline. So I was wondering if there was some sort of secret conversation going on there?

RH: I can’t remember how that title came about but I think that it was in reference to the way  a lot of literature and a lot of poetry seems to take it self very, very seriously. That’s the reason why the publication of an anthology called Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry, edited by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball, even makes sense. The idea that folks can be so invested in a certain way of aggregating cultural capital and really seem quite desperate—clinging to the need to be taken so seriously for it to work means that a kind of a funny title for an interview is actually quite what—threatening?

CF: The other day you sent me a message referencing the possibilities/opportunities that Facebook and other social media provides for people to work in collaboration. You mentioned a meeting place for online collaboration; I think it was called Pool. I had no idea that a place for global collaboration existed and people can work together creatively through social media. It is fascinating that social media is useful beyond its self-promotive applications and can become a creative tool for poets to work with others all over the world.

RH: This is a very geographical question as well as historical. Where do people congregate? If we are talking about 1970s feminism—it didn’t just magically happen. They had to meet somewhere—they had to meet in school gymnasiums. They needed to meet in community centres. Where did they meet? Well, it could be that groups like Pool are where people meet and become collaborators. It could be Art Song Lab where people meet and become collaborators. It could be Visible Verse, and they could meet in the pages of CV2. Is that not exciting? I think that is exciting. I think the question is: “How content are we and why continue to re-circulate our work among those who are already part of those readerships, those circles?” There are probably good reasons to do so, but that can’t be the only position for a poet to take.

When you mention experimental, innovative, avant-garde work is further out along a limb—maybe—it is just pushing it out along the same limb and I think part of that has to do with legibility. When I speak about legibility, it is kind of like, can someone read and understand one’s moods and if they are within the clear markers of avant-garde-ness or poem-ness, then they are still legible within a system. They might be legible as edgy, but the thing is it is still easy to circulate within that system. If one does something that is less legible—illegible or maybe it is only legible to some audiences—maybe only entrepreneurs can read them or maybe only people who are polyamorous—I don’t know—then the “we” are talking about is not just farther out on  a limb—it is somewhere else entirely. And if it is not legible or accessible within certain bounds then it doesn’t necessarily add to one’s literary career. A funding agency or HR job search committee could look at that resumé and decide that it has nothing to do with creative writing. So maybe the academy isn’t the place for this person—maybe they won’t be able to get a grant.

I think this goes back to the idea of what it means to be a renaissance person. If one does embody all sorts of things that are illegible to other people, should one carve oneself up to fit into a box in which one is legible? Or should one be able to articulate one’s fullness of one’s being? In so far as one can in a document.

CF: Of course you go for the fullness of being—carving yourself up to fit in a box sounds excruciating and unnecessarily macabre.

RH: It does, don’t it!


This bio for Ray was created by SUNNY CHAN.