by Jason Bayani
To kick off Asian / Pacific Islander American Heritage Month at the Berkeley Slam, we have the enormously talented, Brynn Saito as our feature. Her first book, The Palace of Contemplating Departure was the winner of the Benjamin Saltman award and subsequently published by Red Hen Press. She’s a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds two Masters degrees from NYU and Sarah Lawrence. Bottom line, she’s dope, let’s get to the questions.
I love your book. I’ve shared it with several poets I know and they were all moved by it. There are so many lines in there that just sit with me and the title poem has one of the most killer endings I’ve come across. I know we can often be our own harshest critics, but, for real, you ever just know you nailed a line or a poem and celebrate it privately in the moment. Maybe one of those “clenching the fist and driving your elbow down” moves or the frat boy classic “come at me, bro” stance?
Yes! I feel elated when a good line arrives — and I feel like the good ones sort of arrive out of nowhere, out of the ether. I set all my intentions aside, and the juicy lines come through. The title poem was written when I was wandering down Mission Street, collecting lines in my mind, reveling in a sense of “tireless wonder,” as I often do when wandering through beautiful urban spaces. I like to wander and wonder. It is a privilege to do so, to have such moments in one’s life.
A lot of the poems in your book deal with feelings of loss and isolation. Why do you think we are so driven to understand solitude or make sense of grief?
There’s a great line, by Bill Knott: “Pain passes for sunlight at some depths.” Moving into solitude and grief brings joy…sometimes. Other times, harvesting the darkness, in an attempt to reap a deeper understanding, can drive me mad! Nonetheless, I continue to seek the joy, the light swimming up from the depths. I risk the madness of doing so.
You’re the second poet I’ve interviewed for this series that was a religious studies major (the first was Write Bloody author, Jade Sylvan). Do you view art as a spiritual process or intellectual one? If it’s both, do you give more weight to one over the other?
Good question. Both, I’d say. Art-making requires the entire mind and body — it’s spiritual, intellectual, and physical. It’s carnal. Full of desire. The senses are engaged; they dance together. I make poems to tap into the mystery. Or, I make poems to feel at home in the mystery. Or…
I decided a long time ago that I wanted to make a lot of money, so I studied philosophy, religion, and poetry. Which, clearly, has worked out wonderfully.
One of my favorite things about reading the poems in your book is that each one can feel like an act of discovery. You have a knack for creating really disorienting but engaging openings and I think that might contribute to giving the reader a sense of displacement at the beginning. How often do you know where a poem is going, or do you trust the process entirely?
I like leaps, in poetry. Surprises. Improvisation. Strange metaphors, fragmented sentences. I want to get better at trusting those leaps, as a poet—better at letting go, surrendering to the moment. I believe it was Anne Carson who said when you’re reading, “you’re moving with somebody else’s mind through an action.” Poetry is an act of the mind. It’s alive. I suppose I do try to trust the wildness of the process, rather than harness the creative energy towards a thought-out end. I want people’s minds to move with my mind, on the page. I wonder if that’s a totally weird desire.
We’re both Kundiman fellows and it’s really encouraging to know that there is such a strong Asian American presence in poetry at the moment, and real talk, we’re kinda killing it right now (although, I would like to see a stronger presence in slam). If you could choose to do another popular Asian American artistic pursuit (other than being a writer), which one would it be: B-Girl, DJ, underground rapper, other?
All of the above! I want to live so many lives. But, for the time being, it is great to be an Asian American poet in the year 2014. I feel so lucky to be a part of a thriving community of writers and artists, all across the country. Kundiman teaches me everyday how to celebrate, how to praise, how to uplift one another—as poets, teachers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. How to draw close, and take care. How to emerge, and sustain—in beautiful and creative ways.
“Saito proves a brave and whip-smart guide to recount journeys (both forced and chosen) around the word and the world. With a lyrical insistence gracing these pages, these alluring poems will both terrify and entrance in such a way that when you finally look up and close the book, you will have to wonder when and where you are. A dazzling and gorgeous debut!”
— Aimee Nezhukumatathil