Peeking through the Primer: An Interview with Rick Hong Manayan


Image: “Architectural Peace,” by Grace Milk, 2015.

Liz Cettina: How did you begin writing “primer”?

Rick Hong Manayan: I started writing “primer” because I’m in Advanced Poetry Workshop. We get a bunch of assignments and later compile work from them into a chapbook at the end of the semester. The assignment for one week was about color. We were instructed to go the Pantone website, pick a color, pick different shades of that color, and write prose poems for each of those shades. So I chose white. I was fascinated by the fact that white, in order to be anything other than white, has to have color added to it. All these various shades of white are actually not white at all. I was interested in the racial and political implications of what that meant. All the colors had these weird names like, “Bone White,” “Brilliant White,” “Whisper White.” And I was just like, “What would it be like if I was a white person whispering? I began writing these prose poems about whiteness and the little and big ways that whiteness infiltrates everything. Then when I was coming up with the title for this project I was like, “Hm, white paint, white paint, primer. Because primer is the base coat for everything.” I really like (hate) the idea that you put white under everything, like white paint gets set down before any color gets set down. I was like, “Wow, that’s kind of fucked. Why did we normalize putting white on everything?” So that’s where a lot of the poems come from. The poems are about who started what, why people like Christopher Columbus are so “important,” who comes into being, who gets counted historically.

Emma Raddatz: How do you see your chapbook progressing?

R: I’m trying to figure out how to make my book an accessible, tangible thing. I’m trying to work with not just poetry but also with historical texts. I’m trying to incorporate historical documents, my historical documents. I think a lot of my history has to do with white people telling me what my history is. I learned all of these things in middle school and high school, and I would go home and tell my mom and she’d be like, “That’s absolutely not what happened. This is what white people think happened to Korea, but this is what happened,” my mom being someone who lived in Korea. A lot of my art engages with sociology and interrogating what it means to be sociological because when we say “sociology,” we’re talking about American sociology because we can only really interrogate what’s happening in the place we live. Korea has its own huge subsets of sociology we have yet to explore, and I will probably not understand all of them because I’ve never been to Korea. Within my art, I work with representations of the Korean diaspora and what that means for people. I ask questions about why my work has to have a predetermined aesthetic feel or why my work has to look like something in relation to a white predetermined aesthetic choice or form. So I like to make my work kind of tongue-in-cheek because I’m a tongue-in-cheek kind of person. I heighten those aspects of my personality in my art because it works as a coping mechanism for me. At this point, I’m just so tired and sick of having to work through a system to dismantle it. The world is fucking tiring, how can you be engaged in the world and not be a tired person? For the chapbook, I’m going to buy primer and see if I can paint the pages or maybe use white out to play with what can be seen through the whiteness, words peeking through the primer. Or images from my personal history splattered or covered with white paint. There are a lot of ways I’m trying to play with form to re-interrogate how aesthetics come to be racialized.

L: How do work within and against poetry as an art form? How does visual art contribute to your poetry?

R: I was writing this one poem in response to Tracy K. Smith and Life on Mars, and how when she visited Wesleyan and students were asking questions, they immediately asked about David Bowie. And I was like, “Why, when this black, female, lauded poet comes to visit, do you have to ask about David Bowie? Why did it become about that white dude in space?” And then I was like, “White dude in space. That’s literally every white dude who takes up space.” So my visual choice to have chunks of white space allude to people who just take up so much space, contrasted with images of what it is to have white as a color, which means those swatches need color to be anything other than white. That’s wild because those [off-white] colors are just the slightest bit different than what you’re going to see on the page when it’s printed out. My assertion is that we deluded ourselves into a world of whiteness where we think whiteness is safe when really it’s so dangerous. I’m trying to play with space in a way that alludes to how much space white poets and people think they can take up or are conditioned into believing they’re allowed to take up. In poetry, I play with capitalization and grammar and form because all those things are ways language has told you to assimilate into a hierarchical structure. I think poetry is boundless. I hate when certain types of poetry get lauded as genius over other types. I think there’s room for all types of poetry and now, more than ever, is the time to question predetermined poetic forms. And my way of doing that is just by being really silly and cute and sarcastic and (hopefully) funny because if you’re able to engage with art as a means of interrogating your world, you have a platform, so why not utilize that platform to talk about something that could possibly deconstruct the world around you and also totally change the way we live.

E: How does this image of the white man in space figures into the “cosmic latte” page?

R: I was looking at these swatches of white, and I saw this beautiful square that said “Cosmic Latte.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” So I looked up “Cosmic Latte” on Wikipedia, and it had this huge description about how these white dudes at Johns Hopkins University came up with a name for the average color of the universe—as if we all care—and it’s white. And they’re like “Cosmic Latte,” the color of the foam on top of your espresso beverages. That’s wild to me that they took it upon themselves to name something so “important.” Then again, naming tactics figure into how we think about history and how white men love slapping a name on everything. Going in line with that, I love including images that seem kind of absurd just to point at how absurd the world is. The fact that people thought “Cosmic Latte” was this nouveau invention that required a Wikipedia page just points at the things that get space on the web.

L: How does that fit into your work as a barista?

R: That’s so funny. I definitely don’t identify as a coffee snob, even though I totally am one. I identify as a coffee snob in that I do manage a café, and I need to be educated in where our beans come from. It’s funny because our work at Espwesso is a kind of social justice work in that we’re attentive to who our beans come from, who is being involved in conversations of the process going from seed to cup. And in the coffee world, there are barista competitions where they judge how well you do latte art. And this goes back into who, historically, thinks their taste buds matter. Like who can identify as a “foodie.” That shit is so silly. Like, no, just call yourself a colonizer, admit to it. It’s subtle ways we’re able to colonize people’s bodies, a barista competition. Who’s going to judge the competition, who’s going to win? Usually the bearded white male who moved from a small town to Brooklyn and now rides a bike and only uses leather…goods. I definitely think it’s funny that I was making fun of “Cosmic Latte,” and I have this reputation of being involved with coffee. I’m down to have conversations about coffee because that’s an example of a small thing in which we can talk about colonial powers and how they infiltrate aspects of our local economy.

L: Who do you read? Who do people tell you to read?

R: Well, I don’t listen to anyone. I don’t really read people who have been historically structured to be important or canonical. I don’t believe in any sort of literary canon because when people utilize the term, “canon,” it’s sort of like doing the work that primer does, to set down whiteness and be like, “Okay, let’s move on from here.” It’s like, no, how about we imagine a world in which whiteness doesn’t come first? The average color of the universe doesn’t need to be white because every time I look up, the colors are always changing, it all depends on your orientation within the world. Personally, I don’t read all that much, but the things I do read are usually things my friends have written. I really like things written by people who have a similar scope to us as college students because I think that work is relatable and deconstructs hierarchies of high language. I hate, hate, hate, hate poetry’s history of high language, and how it’s just like, “This man’s work was just very philosophical, you just have to get deep into the heart of it.” It’s like no, who gets to be philosophical? Who gets to be an objective viewer in society? If you get to take on the role of objectivism, then you’re not being affected by the problems of today. The people I love reading right now are Kamden Hilliard (He’s an incredible poet. His new book is called Distress Tolerance. It deals a lot with being a queer, black man in America right now and the intersections of those selves. He talks about hating white men but also hooking up with white man. He asks why we’re attracted to dangerous objects.), Keren Alshanetsky (Her work is my favorite. She’s a close friend. Her work speaks to me, and it gets to the heart of why we’re friends because I feel like you create your chosen family through your friends here. We’ve become family because we deal with a lot of similar issues.). I guess when I choose people to read, it’s people who make me feel less lonely, that’s kind of sappy, but there’s kind of a necessity for sappiness.

E: When did you start writing?

R: I was a TA in high school for my English department over the summer after sophomore year, and I didn’t know why I was chosen. I guess I displayed talent in writing, but I had never written poetry until I had to write poetry as a TA for this poetry class. So I was like, “Shit, I’m bad at this. All my poems rhyme or are about Hillary Clinton.” Then I started slam poetry in my junior year of high school. At Wesleyan, I’ve been taking poetry workshops sort of unlearning ways I was told to write, “good poetry,” all throughout high school. If I don’t see art that’s making me feel better about the world or that there is a way to envision a world such that all inhabit it in equal ways, then I’m going to make that art myself.

E: How does your poetry interact with other art forms (your dance, your photography)?

R: I’m a dance major so a lot of my ways of making choreography is having people improvise to some of the things I’ve written. I feel like a lot of my work in poetry needs to be heard to be fully expressed. I think it’s very important to hear the speaker’s voice and see how their social environment has affected the way they speak and present their poems in front of people. I think that everything is performance. Poetry and dance are just means of consolidating performance, but life is a performance. You go out, you go through your routines because you think your body needs to get to places or do certain things. Poetry and dance are my means of being able to deconstruct. The other day, my sociology professor identified herself as an anti-disciplinary artist, and I liked that so much because I don’t like the idea that you have to identify as multi-disciplinary because that implies that you have a discipline, that you’ve studied the canon within these disciplines. I think we need more resistance within our art-making forms. Poetry and dance will always inform each other for me. I think dance is a language we speak with our bodies, we write poetry with our bodies. I think poetry is, similarly, a dance with words. I think both art forms are great means to interrogate what’s considered “normal.”

L: How do you control the reader’s experience of your poems—hearing, seeing, reading?

R: I really like the idea of providing people with reading instructions for my poems, but often in poetry workshops, I get feedback that says, “There wasn’t much room for breathing space,” or, “The use of punctuation was totally unnecessary,” and I’m like, “Fine, that’s what you think. That’s how you envision poetry, but this is how I’m envisioning it.” I purposefully write my poems so readers feel like they can’t breathe, you feel like you’re running out of breath, because that’s how I feel like life is for me. So I feel like my social environment is wholly reflected in the words I’m using and the way I structure my poems. If I’m going to present my poems, I thought a lot about how they are going to be perceived. If you feel like you’re stumbling all throughout, that’s fine because we need more mistakes in life. I utilize punctuation in ways that interrogate why punctuation exists. I think punctuation and capitalization exist for the purpose of having words make sense, but I think my poetry is a means of creating nonsense, and turning everything that has historically made sense to us into nonsense. Dance does that as well and I think art, in general, has a responsibility to do that. Like the white space I use, sometimes I use it as a place to breathe, sometimes to point out white people taking up space, sometimes to withhold certain things from the reader. I don’t know everything about me so how could I get everything I need to say across to anyone in a coherent way? There’s no such thing as a coherent self, you’re always different, you’re always in different social situations. You’re always progressing and changing. Time is going, and the future is constantly happening.

E: How is your poetry situated between poetry and prose?

R: I’ve written in prose, but I choose to utilize poetry because it leaves enough room to incorporate prose in it to be accessible to the largest audience possible. I don’t want to create work that feels exclusive, but I know that just being alive and being a person and having the privileges I have to be able to create art makes it exclusive no matter what. Still, my assertion is, I hope that I create art that doesn’t historically exclude people.

E: How has your writing changed over time?

R: I guess the more disenchanted I get with the world, the more spiteful, angry, and angsty my writing gets. Actually, I think my work has gotten more child-like as I get older because I don’t think there’s a right way to be an adult. And there’s a lot of pressure to assimilate into being the “normal” way. I think, as a creative, you need to keep the kid alive because there’s such a power to be able to go back in time before you were socialized to be an adult. So I think my writing has become more honest in its desire to reach out and ask people for help. I think more so in college, last year, I was interested, in my writing, in reflecting the world I saw and not doing anything about it. But I realize now more than ever I need to be able to use art to hint at worlds I want to see, to ask for things even though I’ve been historically told not to ask for things. So I think my writing has morphed from being self-centered to being self-aware, selves-aware because there’s more than one self. I think my writing definitely utilizes what orientation I have in whatever space that I’m in and writes from there in an attempt to comment on the environment, the worlds I’m in, hopefully trying to change them.

L: You said you were named a student poet for poems you don’t really connect to anymore. Can you talk a little about that?

R: I mean, the way I engage with art changes when I get older. Everyone has license to fuck up/grow throughout their history as a student here. I think those poems just don’t reflect what I’m trying to do with poetry because when I had to submit the poems, they had to fit, double-spaced, on four pages. So I was like, “Now, I really need to be careful with the wording.” I do like the poems, but they’re old, and they reflect the sort of person I killed or grew out of. I think my desires and needs for social change have changed drastically the more I’ve unlearned in being at Wesleyan. So those poems, I don’t hate them, they just reflect a self that exists in the past. These poems observe the world as it is and don’t really do anything to hint at how we can change that. It was my big angsty sigh phase. I think, now, there’s a huge power in being sad and not being complacent about it because if you’re sad, it shows that something in the world isn’t working for you. It shows that happiness is kind of fake, it shouldn’t be our be-all and end-all. I’m not saying you should suffer all the time but I don’t think we should always be striving toward happiness.

L: Do you revise your poems? How does revision fit into your ever-changing perspective?

R: I think everything’s a work in progress. Like Kanye keeps changing “The Life of Pablo” and I cannot keep up! Dances are shown to an audience who receive it in some way, but there’s always something that could be different. I’m learning a lot about how artists go about reproducing their work, and why a lot of artists don’t feel the need to make the same thing appear twice because that doesn’t necessarily feel true. When I write, I revise as I’m writing so every time I place a word, I agonize over one line of poetry for like an hour, and I feel like, “Ah, that’s so pointless! Just say what you need to say!” And I have moments where I’m like, “Bleh! This is how I feel! And it’s all working! I’m just going to leave this as is because it’s true to who I am right now!” The interplay between saying what’s on my mind, not filtering, and agonizing over every word, filtering everything, is kind of what’s reflected in my work I think because I’ll have some very solemn, serious things to say that will then be contradicted by saying fun words. I like utilizing a lot of Internet lingo and text speak because I think that reflects the world we live in now and makes the language a little more accessible. Abbreviating the word sorry, “sry,” like that’s so cute and fun! That also goes back to me not thinking I should take up so much space with my words. So abbreviation becomes a tool that exemplifies that. Language is all strategy.

E: What has your workshop experience been like?

R: I don’t really know because the workshop classes are kind of silly. You never know what you’re going to get. I listen to what people have to say, but I know what I need to do to get across what I’m trying to say. I don’t need to listen to how you would have written the poem because this is not your world and that’s not helpful for me. I think a lot of workshop classes become competitions like, “Well, I would have written,” or, “I would have used this,” “I would have done it this way.” Like bish, I’m not you, and that’s the point, that’s the whole point of why we’re in poetry workshops because we all come from different places. We’re not trying to assimilate towards similar styles of writing, the whole point is to honor the difference. The whole point of art is to work towards difference and to be like this is incredible, this is beautiful and messy and dirty. I hate the fact that we need to be clean, coherent beings. Like no, that’s not how anything ever works. So that’s how I handle workshops. I, one, don’t really listen to them, but I do take into consideration when people seriously don’t get something in my writing because that means I didn’t do the work necessary to prepare them to dive into this mood or tone, I didn’t do the work necessary to make this as accessible as possible because this is something that’s rooted in my experience and my experience only, so how can I find some sort of coalition through changing my words, through opening up. I think, if you’re in a poetry class with me, you’ll end up learning a lot about me inadvertently, but I think that’s good. That’s the point, especially in classes as intimate as poetry workshops or dance composition workshops. When you see how someone creates, you see how the world has informed their aesthetic choices, you see how all of their political understandings come to flourish in how they treat space, whether it’s on page or on the stage. You learn and unlearn a lot about people.

E: Anything else you want to add?

R: Well, my ideal date is, “Me and you get wine drunk. We go back to Community Engagement House and go straight to the bathtub. The bathtub is filled with bubbles and rose petals and there’s a bottle of champagne. Then we go back down to my room and don’t do anything. All we do is watch “Sailor Moon,” then we go to sleep. So if anyone is trying to smooch, preferably soon, just kidding, not kidding, let me know. 

Rick is a 2015-16 Wesleyan Student Poet and is currently working on a slew of creative projects including “primer.” Read excerpts from it here.


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