SB: Congratulations on the publication of Cleave! This book is so hauntingly beautiful and moving. The poems collected here both widen out to a transnational scope and zero in on the most internal, intimate parts of our speaker. Cleave is an important voice in the (often silenced) conversation about adoption, and yet silence dominates this collection, in form and content. Can you speak to the role of silence (or absence) in Cleave?
TN: So much of what we know as adoptees is hearsay, fabrication, or straight up missing, and the voices of those most directly impacted—the adoptee and biological family—are noticeably absent. It was important to me to highlight the marginalized position of the adoptee by calling attention to silence. Through writing Cleave, I could finally take agency over my experiences, hold my grief with my own hands, and make sense of it through language. When language wasn’t enough, I explored various approaches, such as fragmentation and redaction and by emphasizing the white space on the page. By juxtaposing absence with the breadth of my emotions—rage, grief, joy, love—I could build a more layered and nuanced picture of the adoptee experience. We are not flat, one-dimensional characters in a fairytale. Too often, adoptees end up being the projection of somebody else’s fantasy. It’s no coincidence that so many stories begin with an orphaning, from the classics of Cinderella and Bambi to more contemporary examples like Harry Potter and Sweet Tooth. As an artist and writer, I feel a responsibility to challenge people’s limited understandings of adoption.
SB: I love how you phrase that: challenging dominant narratives and expanding the limitations is so important. I have a very different adoption story, being born white in the USA and adopted by white parents of the same country, but I felt so connected to and moved by the poems situated around family dynamics, like “Did you know” (12). Can you speak to the writing of these narrative poems? They handle a whole different (or is it?) sort of vulnerability.
TN: I have two adopted siblings, and though we are not biologically related, we’re all Korean. After adopting my brother, who was born in the US, my parents decided to adopt both me and my sister and from Korea so we would all be “the same.” While I believe their intentions were good, they didn’t follow this choice up with any framework for us to understand what it meant to be Korean or how to connect with each other around our shared identity. I recently read this quote by James Baldwin: “When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.” The poem that you mention started with the simple fact of what my brother said. From there, I could unpack what it meant and how it might have felt for him as a young child to watch his little sister arrive not in a hospital like most kids, but in an airport. Like Baldwin, writing it compelled me to get close to something I didn’t understand and begin to untangle it.
SB: Wow, so much can come from small moments. That impulse is clear throughout Cleave, and the poem “Interview with Dr. Harlow” (36) feels like a pivotal moment in the narrative itself. What was it like for you to pose so many questions that will never actually be answered by the interviewee? Did writing this leave you feeling empowered, or hopeless? Neither? Both?
TN: When I wrote this poem, I was in the middle of my journey into investigating Harlow’s research and life story. His studies on attachment theory and relationships between caregivers and children were so informative for me as an adoptee and truly groundbreaking for his time. I also learned that he was a problematic figure in his field, an alcoholic, and, ironically, an absent father. In addition, laws to protect the ethical treatment of laboratory animals were created largely in part due to his malpractice. Ultimately, I felt like these discoveries demanded an interrogation. Looping back to your first question about silence, in this case, to render Harlow silent through an onslaught of questions felt empowering. Through the poem, I could shift the paradigm. Rather than this outside force constructing and imposing theories on my life, I could wield power back through the act of questioning.
SB: One of the great strengths of Cleave is its handling of form. “Where are you really from?” is a list poem, naming various places. What are the origins of this poem? How did you discover the items on this list, and what was your process of ordering it?
TN: I can’t remember which museum it was, but years ago I was in San Francisco and I saw an exhibit that took up a whole gallery wall. The wall was painted purple and had neon signs lit up in various locations with the latitude and longitude coordinates and the names of the cities that were positioned there. Specifically, I remember “Nameless” and “Nada” illuminated on the wall. I was intrigued and looked up other cities with unusual and interesting names. While searching, I found places like Hazard, Nebraska and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and an origin story started to come together. Sometimes you plan poems and sometimes they just happen. It’s really thrilling when a piece of writing surprises you in its making.
SB: Speaking of form, I’d love to hear you speak about the sonnet, a form which echoes throughout Cleave. Do you think about sonnets when you sit down to write? What strengths do you find within this form, and what does it lack?
TN: I love that you noticed traces of sonnets throughout Cleave, but I have to admit that I did not once think about a sonnet while writing it! It’s so interesting, though, how ripples of what we read and study find their way into our work. I was raised on the western white literary canon, and while I like to think I work to resist it, your observation tells me that we can’t entirely escape what we’ve been taught. There is something about the succinctness of fourteen lines that can be really appealing when a poem is searching for its form. I also think there’s power in us staking a claim in old forms and making them work for us. Shakespeare never could have imagined someone like me writing poetry, but here I am. As poets in the 21st century, it’s our job to extend and stretch language to meet the moment we’re in, and yet I also find it humbling to think of my work as part of a centuries-old legacy.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/