An Interview with Sandra Lim

Sandra LimLast April, Sandra Lim participated in the Emerging Writers Festival at the University of San Francisco, where she gave a public reading and participated in a writers’ panel on publishing. She is the author of Loveliest Grotesque, as well as the recently released The Wilderness. Lim was born in Seoul, Korea and grew up in the area around San Francisco. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Switchback: You have a new book of poems, The Wilderness (W.W. Norton Company), that just came out last month. It’s been eight years since your debut collection, Loveliest Grotesque(Kore Press) was published. How has your writing changed in the time in between? Should readers expect to hear poems differing in style, manner, and design from your first collection?

Sandra Lim: In my first book, I think my language was perhaps more baroque, more in love with saturation, sensation, and the energy and special effects of pattern and enhancement. When I was writing The Wilderness, I remember wanting the poems in the book to burn a reader’s hands; but I desired a stark lucidity in the language that would achieve this burning. The tone and subject matter may seem more philosophical overall in this second collection, but I think there is a sensuousness that continues from first to second book.


SWB: In 2013 you were awarded the Barnard Women Poets Prize, which is given to the best second collection of poems by an American woman poet. Your manuscript was selected by Louise Glück, former Poet Laureate of the United States. Could you share with us your thoughts on receiving such a prestigious prize?


SL: Oh, it feels great. I was so happy for the book to be taken in the first place, but then to find out that Louise Glück chose it was amazing. I had heard that she enjoyed working with poets during her Yale Younger judging days, so I was really excited to be able to talk with her about my manuscript. I’m just really grateful—I feel I’ve been given more courage, more fellowship.


SWB: In terms of size and reputation, Norton is a much larger publishing house than Kore Press. Can you talk a little bit about your experience in working with two vastly different presses in publishing your books?


SL: In terms of manuscript copy, I appreciated that my editors at both presses gave me a lot of independence and freedom. Of course, the biggest difference is just the sort of distributive reach that a place like Norton has; it’s still very early in the life of my book being out, but I do hope to gain more readers with The Wilderness.


SWB: Your work has been described by other writers as being postmodern. Do you see yourself as a postmodern poet or as a poet who sometimes writes postmodern poems?


SL: I suppose I think of myself as a lyric poet foremost, but perhaps one who is keenly interested in the intuition for form or formal arrangement that keeps exerting itself in, or clarifying, the poem at hand. In other words, it may be that the way in which this formal aspect of the imagination is made explicit in some of my poems is what can give the work its postmodern texture.


SWB: I noticed a lot of the poems in your first collection have a collage-like quality to them. “There Is No Wing Like Meaning” is composed of independent prose blocks and references a number of writers’ notorious aphorisms and sayings. “Equilibrium” has a kind of neat dialogue going on between the poem itself and the footnotes, where other texts are referenced. Did the references in these poems come about from your treatment of a single subject? Or did they come together independently and you found the co-mingling of an array of voices an interesting thing in and of itself to constitute a poem?


SL: I love to keep notebooks full of quotations, and “Equilibrium” grew out of a certain number of references and quotations that I started to group together and kept circling around. For that poem, I started to hear tonal juxtapositions, continuities, and musics that made sense to me. I was trying to arrive at a place of understanding or feeling that wasn’t come by thematically, exactly.


SWB: What poets do you find yourself returning to most frequently? And what writers have you been reading most recently? Anything new or unexpected on your bookshelf?


SL: I have often returned to Sappho, Wallace Stevens, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound. But I also tend to read a lot of fiction. Recently, I’ve been reading Grace Paley again, some Nabokov, Leonard Michaels, and in the category of the new and unexpected, a volume of plays by Annie Baker, The Vermont Plays. The plays are surprising and wonderful.


SWB: There’s a poem in Loveliest Grotesque that begins, “I pound the steaks, / you verb the noun” (“In Radiant Serenity”). The poem then continues in this kind of Mad Lib-esque manner, which urges the reader to complete the poem. This is an extreme example, but do you find yourself leaving meaning and content more open-ended within your poems, so readers can arrive at independent interpretations of their own?


SL: I always want the word choice and the meaning in my poems to seem inevitable. But I want the intensity and the widening clarity to be ego-less, somehow.


SWB: A poem of yours called “Sonnet” personifies color in an interesting way. The opening goes: “Red is the color but / Green holds the mood and / Black is the outstretched hand.” Continuing in this fashion, the poem reminds me of a recent essay published in Poetry by Dorothea Lasky entitled “What Is Color in Poetry, or Is It the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word.” In it she discusses, among other matters, her personal relationship to color. In addition to “Sonnet,” how do you use color(s) in other poems?


SL: I’ve actually never consciously thought about wielding color in such a way, but for Loveliest Grotesque, the color red seems to insinuate itself into a lot of poems. In The Wilderness, the cold fire of white pervades, I suppose. Perhaps I want to associate color in poems with general license and points of departure more than any kind of mimetic move.


SWB: As a kind of follow-up to that last question, it’s clear that Lasky has a poetic obsession with color. What are some of your obsessions you can’t seem to shake in your poems? And, when you discover an obsession, do you then write toward that obsession or do you ignore it, knowing it will reveal itself subconsciously?


SL: Love and creativity are still a great source of drama for me. As for writing toward or away from subjects, I guess I have done both at different times. There can be something very static about obsession; so one goal in writing is for the poem not to seem entirely willed, and therefore inert or repetitive.


SWB: Your poems rely heavily on abstraction and movement by association. One of your poems (“The Sea, The Sea”) ends with the line “I fear its sharks, lack of oxygen, sailor bric-a- brac, but at a distance I take pleasure in its undulating order and disorder.” I think the metaphor speaks to your own work as well, in that there’s a vastness your work covers, which implies a certain intimidation. What advice would you give to readers who might resist the vastness and intimidation of your own work?


SL: I hope that this sense of vastness and complexity may signal a feeling for my ambition for the poem and for the act of reading. The act of reading deeply, to me, is nothing short of being changed, sometimes uncomfortably so. I guess I would invite readers to welcome in both the contending and the manifest in the work; but I hope it gives pleasure overall!


John GibbsJohn Gibbs is the former Managing Editor of Switchback. He received his Bachelor’s degree in English from Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Originally from Saint Louis, he now lives in San Francisco, where he received his MFA from the University of San Francisco. His work has most recently appeared in The Chariton Review and Bodega Magazine.