Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kirun Kapur reads “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass.
Kirun, I remember first being introduced to Robert Hass through his book Field Guide and getting absolutely floored. Sun Under Wood was really spectacular as well. I could read Hass all day. Do you remember your first run in with his work and what that was like? What makes Hass’ poetry so essential?
Kirun: My first encounter with Hass took place in the stacks of the University of Hawaii library. I was still in high school, but, occasionally, I could get permission to visit the University library for “research purposes.” I pulled Field Guide off the shelf at random, never having heard of the book or of Hass. I didn’t read him all day, but possibly all afternoon. The UH library was difficult to like. It was dark and cavernous and the lights in the poetry section never worked properly, blinking and buzzing. The only thing it had in common with the sunny, tropical exterior was that it was always humid. I read Field Guide, damply, sitting on the floor at the end of an aisle, angling the book to catch some light from the windows.
What’s essential about Hass has changed for me over the years, but what I remember from that first encounter is simply the way the opening poem captured me. The first line is “I won’t say much for the sea.” For someone living on an island (an island sentimentalized and exalted precisely because of the beauty of the sea) this was an extraordinary thing to say. I loved, immediately, his tone—seemingly frank, unsentimental, occasionally edging toward raw, even rude. “Here filthy life begins.”—another line I remember so clearly. I loved the way the delicacy and power of the ocean scene is entirely preserved, even heightened, by Hass’s bald tone. That tone allowed him to say anything and everything—from minute observations (“fins of duck’s-web thickness) to grand truths (But it’s strange to kill/ for the sudden feel of life. The danger is/ to moralize/ that strangeness”). I read the poem over and over, first marveling, then trying to understand the trick of it.
Chris: My favorite thing about “Meditation at Lagunitas” is how simple and universal it is. I have to admit I almost cry whenever I look at a photo of Robert Hass—he’s just so damn perfect. And his work is the same—so smooth, approachable, and calm. I always get choked up and swoony at “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” What lines or images do you most enjoy in this poem?
Kirun: Oh, there are many. The line “to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” is such a pleasure to say, making a bramble of my mouth. The lines “After a while I understood that,/ talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,/ pine, hair, woman, you and I” are favorites, too, capturing so much of what I love about this poem—its scope, meaning, its perfect balance of intimate and abstract. Really, the whole second half of this poem kills me.
Chris: I love the quiet tension that Hass creates. “Meditation at Lagunitas” always seems so multifaceted and clever—part elegy, part ars poetica, a celebration of diversity and our inability to wrangle our minds and language around everything we experience. I’m fanboying. What are the elements in this poem that are most important to you as a writer?
Kirun: It’s hard to pick just one or two important elements, but recently, I’ve been interested in how far a poem can travel, how much space it can create in that journey. Meditation at Lagunitas travels such an incredible distance, moving from the abstraction of the beginning (“each particular erases/the luminous clarity of a general idea”) to the concrete nouns of the end (“shoulders,” “pumpkinseed,” “bread,” “blackberry”). It moves by turning inward—from the world of big ideas toward the most intimate world of private speech and feeling: first a personal talk with a friend, then the memory of an intimate love affair, and, finally, the self talking to the self in private revelations that send us back out into the world (“it hardly had to do with her.” “I must have been the same to her.”). When I read the poem, I feel that movement as a lowering of the voice, both the sense and the volume of my voice falling through the registers of sound and speech. You can’t possibly say the first line, “All the new poems are about loss,” in the same manner as you say the last: “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry. The word “blackberry” has been transformed by the movement of the poem—by the end it is a platonic ideal, an intimate sensual object, a numinous religious relic; it is a word, a thing, an elegy and an immediate feeling, all at once.
Chris: One last question in regards to “pumpkinseed” as a name for the flitting orange fish, are there any names of things that you particularly love? Or do you have a name for something that you, a friend, or family member has created that you enjoy?
Kirun: I grew up in Hawaii, where the English is sometimes heavily inflected with a creole called Pidgin. Pidgin incorporates words from a great variety of languages—Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese—reflecting all the cultures that have come to the islands. I love so many Pidgin words and phrases. “Hemajang,” for instance. It means completely messed up. As in, Kirun’s answers to your questions are all “hemajang.”
Kirun Kapur is the winner of the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry and the Antivenom Poetry Award for her first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, FIELD, Prairie Schooner, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and at Brandeis University. She will be a visiting writer at Amherst College in the fall. Kapur has been awarded fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell Colony. She is the director of the New England arts program, The Tannery Series, and serves as Poetry Editor at The Drum Literary Magazine. She was recently named an “Asian-American poet to watch” by NBC news. Kapur grew up in Honolulu and now lives north of Boston.
Chris Petruccelli’s latest poetry can be found in Appalachian Heritage. New poems are forthcoming in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel volume 19: Appalachia Under Thirty. His work can also be found in Cider Press Review, Connotation Press, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. Chris currently works, runs, and drinks whisky in east Tennessee.