“At the heart of the collection is the question, who or what is human? What then is love?”
Radio Heart; Or, How Robots Fall Out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
I have a very large and cherished collection of chapbooks; I don’t think there is any better way to spend one’s money. Some people have “shopping” vices—heels, jewelry, electronics—I guess mine are books, and especially chapbooks. I suppose it helps that chapbooks are often low cost, but certainly not any less in value! One of my favorite chapbooks is Capitalization by Mark Nowak and published by Sun Yung Shin. It’s really a small pamphlet or chaplet and manifesto all at once. Another chapbook I really love is Periodicity by Iris Law, a collection of poems on women scientists. When it was published, I wrote a review of the collection for Kelsey Street Press, and I’ve taught the collection to students in an introduction to poetry. The chapbook form can really be the perfect length to introduce poetry to students. Reading Periodicity also helped me look to Finishing Line Press as a potential publisher for my current chapbook collection Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Both Periodicity and Capitalization represent my hopes for my own poetry and my two current book projects. One focuses on themes of science, technology, and gender which I return to over again, and the other, is the political poem. I admire both Iris Law and Mark Nowak, as well as Sun Yung Shin very much, and I admire their publishers for contributing to poetry within the shorter chapbook form.
What’s your chapbook about?
My chapbook Radio Heart; or, How Robots Fall Out of Love explores a near future where robots and humans fall in and out of love. The collection is a meditation on the love poem, an attempt for innovation of the genre/form, and aims to examine our millennial desires through lyricism, algorithms, and sonnets, too. Here in the collection, I want technology and emotionality to circuit, and I want to bridge the intersections of science and poetry. At the same time, the poems explore “difference,” through romantic relations between machines and humans. These figures come together, and at the same time desperately fall apart. At the heart of the collection is the question, who or what is human? What then is love?
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
In 2009, I wrote Yellow, a chapbook that explored the intersection of race and sexuality, which was published by Tinfish Press. Yellow was an experiment on form such as ghazals, (failed) sonnets, and indexes, as much as it explored race and this notion of color.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem is “Love, Robot” which was first published in the literary journal Mission At Tenth. When I was a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, I worked out of the New Media Lab, and sat next to a roboticist post doc named Dmitry Berenson, who became a close friend. I had a lot of poetry related items, such as a photograph of Langston Hughes at my desk. The lab was an attempt to bring scientists, technologists, and humanists together, and so I didn’t really expect too many poet/scientists. I researched the cultural representations of robots as a humanities scholar, and so it was great sitting next to Dmitry. We were both mentees of Ken Goldberg, who is a roboticist and new media artist. Dmitry asked me who the photograph was of, and as I was describing Langston Hughes, he stopped me because he knew Hughes as he was a poet as well! He had taken poetry seminars as a graduate student. We then formed a writing group with other poets on campus, and I wrote my first robot love poem after that. I think meeting Dmitry gave me permission to rethink my exploration of robotics through poetic form, and how important it is to trouble binaries such as poetry/science, robot/human, roboticist/poet.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I shared the larger manuscript with a few trusted mentors and friends. In particular, I received sage advice from my mentor Joseph O. Legaspi. He relayed that he felt the first section may be stronger without an algorithm poem accompanying each poem. So ultimately, I did make choices editing out a select algorithm poems, which really strengthened the larger manuscript.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I was very lucky to work with amazing visual artists while putting together this manuscript. Two poems “Beam, Robot,” and “How Do You Make Love To A Robot” were published in Hyphen Magazine with illustrations by Nick Iluzada. They were gorgeous images, and soon after, I received news from Finishing Line Press who wanted to publish the collection. So it was a natural choice for the cover illustration. I then asked my long-time friend very talented graphic designer Max Medina to design the cover. I gave some feedback, but both are extraordinary artists, and I had complete trust in their visions.
What are you working on now?
I just finalized the larger book manuscript Love, Robot, and so my human fingers are crossed for a good home. I am working on a second book Manifesto: I love Juana and Other Poemas which follows along my first chapbook Yellow, as the poems explore race, sex, and politics.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
I would say focus on the poems first, but if you feel compelled to continue with a theme, then definitely nurture it! Unlike the book, the chapbook can be more ephemeral and so, I would advice poets to give oneself permission to experiment as well.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I like this question, it goes along to why I really love Capitalization. The ephemeral nature of the chapbook can have an impact or alignment on the politics of the poems that appear inside of it.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Truong Tran, Joseph O. Legaspi, Claudia Rankine, Stephen Dunne, Cathy Linh Che, Sun Yung Shin, Myung Mi Kim, and Renee Gladman.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I also work in the new media art and find it’s very intersectional with my poetic practice as well.
Margaret Rhee is the author of chapbooks Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) and Radio Heart; or, How Robots Fall Out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She co-edited Glitter Tongue: queer and trans love poems and is co-editor of Azalea, an anthology of Korean American women’s poetry (Tupelo Press, 2017). As a new media artist, her project The Kimchi Poetry Machine has been featured at the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 3. In 2014, she received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in ethnic and new media studies. Currently, she teaches in the Women and Gender Studies Dept at the University of Oregon.
From “Beam, Robot“