This is part two of an interview with the poet Hari Alluri conducted by the The B-Side journal’s Arthur Kayzakian. In this portion, Hari offers insights into how specific techniques—especially metaphor—help his poetics to materialize in the work. On his way to discussing future projects and the transformation of language, he reveals how the conversation, the collaboration, the search and the listening are, for him, inherent to how poets can engage with each other and the world. Alluri is the author of The Promise of Rust, a chapbook, and The Flayed City, a forthcoming collection. He holds an MFA from San Diego State University and teaches in several colleges while serving as an editor of pacific Review and a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.
What poetic techniques do you find yourself using the most and why?
I seek images, sound, metaphors and tension most lately, because these are what I found myself struggling with most. As my sistar and collaborator Cynthia Dewi Oka pointed out to me, my work tends to have qualities of shadow and ash, so I’m growing in my attempts to work with narrative and sometimes this means straight out writing prose.
I love forms, received, revised, innovated. I am particularly interested in what it means for me to attempt majority world forms, forms grown from the particularities of other languages and alphabets and cultures, in English. For example, Filipinx poetry and music, from ancient through colonization to now, is rich with syllabic, sonic, occasion-based and emotively-driven forms. I’m also taught form by the multiple structures of poems that I love.
Can you explain your process of making metaphors?
I’ll add to that, why do I have a process for making metaphors?
I used to trust metaphors more than similes in my work, though I practiced them in play and have always loved them in hip hop (emcees are probably the ones who surprise similes the most and the best ones can deploy the pun to its potential as a technique of surprise: freestyling is amazing for this). Then I grew a distrust for metaphors, though they still moved me. A conversation with Harry Stefanakis saved me: he spoke to how metaphors are primordial in language: in sounds, in hieroglyphs, in alphabets: they are, like any rendition, a mis-rendition, one that is the source of all communication, all story.
And so, I believe in practicing the art of misrendition: through observation, play and attempt, recall, revision: relation of course in all of these.
In observation: the world itself is generous even when those of us in it are being unkind or downright oppressive, which, too, is to be observed for multi-sensory images and resonances, which is a cruel act but one that is part of what poetry is.
In play and attempt: learning from forms of cultural production other than poetry; immigrating and resonating from the powerful work of others; making sensory lists of similes to realize concepts (Michael Derby); attending to dynamic the surprise of opposites (Nadia Chaney, Sara Kendall) and resonance (Raul Espinoza, Rupinder Sidhu); Ilya Kaminsky taught us a great surrealist game and encouraged us to revise for metaphorical texture; Sandra Alcosser had us attend especially to metonymic gesture; Marilyn Chin showed us that metaphor can come from sound and form; Sherwin Bitsui offered us a way of communicating with image through shape of both image and utterance; also, sci-fi and fantasy have been feeding my work a lot lately: amazing metaphors there, renderings of worlds!
In recall: I am moving more and more away from my own memories as inherently important and toward a notion that they are contributors to metaphorical texture in the work. Journaling or throat-clearing or freestyling to help release my attachments’ hold on my writing is crucial for this.
In revision: I try to let the work surprise me and tell me what it wants. And often it wants recombination: re-relation.
What is the process of making the techniques you deploy in your poetry successful?
Regardless of which technique, observing, sensing, attending is the process: I love seeking moments that teach me to hone and expand my writing: practicing techniques allows for a wider and more precise vocabulary of attempt and revision: they help me listen prior during and in return: they help me feel during the process when something clicks and transforms the work: they help me find moments when, as if techniques have fallen away, work seems to flow onto the page of its own accord. And the process continues from there.
What advice can you give younger poets who want to engage in a larger conversation with poetry?
This is a question of yours that I’ve returned to several several times. I’ve thought it through and made notes and, finally, asked my students to help me practice the revision techniques I’ve been sharing with them on drafting paragraphs: to them and their insights: 8am English 49 City College crew: word gratitude. With acknowledgment to them and to how all writing is inherently collaborative, I have three primary thoughts on this:
My initial response pays homage to the insight of your question’s word choice and phrasing: I want to say, “to engage in a larger conversation with poetry, read poetry (others’, yours) out loud to the night. Read it and sit with it and ask poetry itself questions. You might even think you hear responses: write them down!” Forgive my romanticism, but what I’m trying to say is:
The larger conversation with poetry is one that I feel begins in our oldest and ongoing responses to any piece of work: reading, experiencing, writing: when I mark a text (and when I respond to moments in the world), my four primary questions are: “what moves you? what troubles you? what do you find important? what you feel the author(s) find(s) important? Of course, these include how and why and what it is about the moment and my engagement with it that underlies these responses and they raise further questions. When I am moved and troubled, when I find in particular moments urgent and ongoing questions, especially the ones—as James Baldwin suggests—that are hidden by the answers, then I am already beginning to participate in the conversations that matter to me: then it’s a matter of continuing to ask and respond to these questions in the work and with community and, in moments like the one you offer here, sometimes they are amplified:
I think one of the anxieties I’ve had may be one that many people have: it’s an anxiety that comes from so deeply wanting to find those who want to engage in the conversations I need and love and, when I find moments that are particularly rich, wanting to facilitate their amplification. However, I also remember I’ve had so many of these moments, from conversations in a friend’s car over a mixtape one of us made to those in workshops to the workshop after-hours ones to the events and activist interventions I’ve attended or participated in or helped organize. Folks who came up practicing any form that did not have a large and ready audience, we know that we had to make happen the events we wanted to happen. And in that we found others doing similar work. It’s rhizomatic how people find more work that moves, troubles and inspires them and I think that participating in any larger conversation works the same way:
Maybe the larger conversation is just an extension of the ones we’ve always had about what moves us and troubles us, what we find important, what makes us question and respond, and it’s a matter of amplifying that and finding ways to do so in the work itself, whether events or publications or interviews—like the conversation you invited me to participate in here.
What advice/suggestions can you provide poets who work on their craft?
I’m moved to contextualize how I think about craft with a paraphrase of Kwame Dawes: Racism in writing is a failure of craft.
Here’s some advice via a few folks who I hope forgive me if I misrender their wisdom. Via Chris Abani: craft is learning and growing your own voice, learning and contending with why you write, implicating your deeply vulnerable self in how and what you write. Via Suheir Hammad: craft, through emotional honesty, is a deeper rendition of what really happened: it requires compression, distillation, transformation. Via Ross Laird and the tradition of collective consciousness: the creative process is a mythic journey at the center of which you communicate with the monster, which is your own wisdom, your intervention, in disguise. Via Wayde Compton remixed with Patrick Rothfuss, a kind of magical phenomenology: craft is about learning to move more and more quickly between the audacity of writing (holding in your alar the false notion that you will actually succeed at rendering a thing you are being called to render) and the humility of reading (holding in your alar the false notion that you are someone else who is not judgmental of this thing you have written but who is discerning of what should go or stay or change) while finding the alar to revise toward the thing that most resists your attempts to fix it.
As you can tell, my own approach to poetry is immigrative, collaborative and obsessive. What I suggest to poets is an immigration of something I first heard Matthew Shenoda say: to seek out and learn from the different lineages that already flow through them; to grow into these and, as they do, seek out and learn from those that approach them out of difference; to read widely while considering all forms of text readable, from those on the page through the aural and visual, tactile and experienced, which is, for me, to include the world; to practice the techniques and moments that move them or trouble them in low-stakes and enjoyable attempts; to build and to seek out communities committed to craft in these ways and in the ways that seek and foster the heart of craft.
In all of these, I suggest practicing what comes naturally and attending to the elements they have room to grow in. In the space of working on a poem specifically, while being immersed in more and more of what they have learned and are working on, I suggest listening to and asking what the poem wants over and over again.
Finally—and this likely helped me the most, because it made possible capacity to endure and commit to all of the above—I say learn to write and revise almost anywhere, almost anytime, without, of course, being unpresent, cruel or obnoxious to those who are around.
What are some future projects that you have in mind?
Right now, in prep for its 2017 arrival, I’m in the final stages of back and forth editing with the wonderful folks at Kaya Press on The Flayed City, which surprised me more than anything I’d worked on previously.
In terms of writing, you yourself know that part of it is just working on craft: daily practices with pare David Maduli, conversations and sessions with a bunch of folks from the SDSU program and my older communities and dope moments at home. I recently wrote a response to Cynthia Dewi Oka’s “Post-Election Song of Myself” that Blueshift Journal is going to publish: poems in conversation move me.
I’m currently trying to build a set of practices and skills that can meet the rigors and demands of a project I started years ago: a series of responses to and renderings of the story of Ekalavya, a beautiful and tragic figure in the Mahabharata.
With Locked Horn Press, Read America(s) is a powerful anthology that’s beginning to get taught in classes and whose life in the world continues to grow. I’m looking forward to our next pairing project of poetry anthology and critical text.
With Pacific Review, we recently sent out our call for an issue on the theme of Errant Mythologies. We appreciate the breadth of interpretation and the marginalized myths we’re learning about and the insight that comes from the troubled joy in the writing and the craft of going in: we’re receiving great work and we want to receive more.
Finally, I want to do more translation and more collaborative translation, partially because translation offers the closest possible reading (I believe I first heard this from David Keplinger): because I have found so much of my lineage in work that’s been translated: because, thanks to so many who are doing this both in translation and through transformation of English as such, I believe at my most audacious, humble and hopeful that it’s necessary and possible to help English become more inclusive, become more able to face its uglinesses and, in doing so, become more beautiful.