Emily Troia: In The Bees Make Money in the Lion, you play with several poetic forms—especially the abecedarian. What made you choose the abecedarian as a principle form?
Lo Kwa Mei-en: “The Alien Crown” was the most crucial series of poems for me, and the most demanding. The series’ constraints borrow from the abecedarian, the sonnet, and the sonnet crown, and for half a year I floundered in frustration that I could not “master” the form I was obsessed with. A direct result of the flailing was my understanding that the systemic constraints I had been so attracted to in the full range of these poems were guiding me within the larger themes of the work. Once I had reframed my relationship to the form, the work took on its own liveliness and seemed to make unusual, provocative, meaningful demands of me. The abecedarian form I used demands both rule-based, pre-ordained conclusions and ethical dedication to sensual, whole-hearted inquiry. For me, this paradox clarified something unspeakable about a lifetime’s worth of struggling at the crossroads of repression, violence, and creative energy. I think the double-sided abecedarian form is a way into experience. It is a cave that will change your voice. It is in and of itself the way I feel about many things. It made itself central to the book.
The primary texts of inspiration that led to my curiosity about abecedarianism were Inger Christensen's book Alphabet, Jasmine Dreame Wagner's book Rewilding, and Rebecca Hazelton's poem "Both Sides".
ET: Even though you strictly adhere to the forms you employ in The Bees, the writing never feels cramped or limited by them. Do you have any recommendations for other poets on how to use the constraints of form without becoming mired in them?
LKM: If there is a way to use the constraints of form without becoming mired in them, I would love to learn about it! I suppose one way is to only work with constraints that demand little to no real effort of you as an artist. But if you are working with formal constraint in an effort to grow artistically/personally, then I think becoming enmired, and spending considerable time in that place, is a valuable and unavoidable experience.
Maybe one practical suggestion is to consider the myriad possibilities that your formal constraint contains, to spend more time exploring its dynamic potential than you do trying to “get it right.” I don’t know that this is a great writing tip, but it’s key to the pleasure I found in developing my relationship to form.
Also, do not ignore your relationship to the formal constraints at work in literature that reach beyond the rules of, for instance, what makes a sonnet. I’m talking about how white supremacy, for example, shapes the canon and therefore our poetic education and therefore the distribution of resources and power in the publishing industry and therefore the authors that are most visible and likely to be read and therefore the state in which we ourselves approach the blank page. One of the most meaningful questions we can ask ourselves as poets is how we relate to the constraints of social inequity. Creativity within constraint is in large part about drawing new connections we had not seen before, and resisting the impulse to capitalize on the easiest proferred solution when we feel that we are enmired. I think that this is also an example of valuable and unavoidable work for artists.
ET: The Bees is in five parts but has elements braided throughout the entire book. Can you share a little bit about your process in structuring the manuscript?
LKM: The Bees Make Money in the Lion used to be in three parts. One section for all the poems that I titled “The Romances,” one for the Babel series, and one for the abecedarians, which I thought of as the science fiction section. I did this in part to bridge the different formal lens, and in part to close with the abecedarians, but at the end of the day, this structure bothered me. Its framing felt like a showcasing of formal technique and I was afraid that the story elements that resonate between the different voicings and tones would get lost. In addition, the “Okay, you’ve seen all there is to see of that; now come look at this” rhythm felt suggestive of a tourism narrative. In my first structural revision, I split both the first and third section into unresolved halves, so that there is the necessity return to as well as leave behind the different worlds I portrayed. (If someone is reading the book from beginning to end, that is.)
The book’s structure also echoes the double-ended constraints that are so prevalent in the poems, and this felt very right to me, as did Caryl Pagel’s idea to edit the second and fourth sections down to six poems each. One of my secret-ish goals for this book was to embrace the nature of formula. The interconnected lives of (social) bees are incredibly formulaic, and yet bees are one of the wildest subjects in the world, in my opinion. I wanted to see if I could submit my will to the formulaic aspects of poetry and still make something that sang with a voice of its own.
ET: In Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she writes, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized.” How would you describe the “light” in The Bees?
LKM: The light in The Bees Make Money in the Lion is almost audible in its insistence that it has the right to exist, and to exist without restraint, no matter the constraints of its environment. The light cannot avoid the violence that exists inside as well as outside its burning.
ET: What are you working on right now?
LKM: I’ve been working primarily on my health. The Bees Make Money in the Lion is without a doubt the last book I will have been able to write while compromising the work of taking care of myself—and if I’m honest about it, the book was only half-written in carelessness. (The first draft was completed while I was still drinking, and the revision process occurred after I had stopped.) This has been the first year that I have been able to commit to a widening range of “basic” health practices while also working multiple jobs.
In terms of writing, I have several books on deck, including the first book of an epic fantasy trilogy in poetry about the character Pinnochia and a science fiction novella about addiction, emigration, and love. But I haven't progressed in either of these works for a while. This year, I had to start over in the most foundational areas of my writing life. I am tragically results-oriented, so even the concept of experience being its own reward is in danger of being exploited by my ego: perhaps what I need to let go of is the idea of the reward at all.
As a result, I've been prioritizing forms of writing that I previously—secretly—shamefully—considered not worth what little free time I have. Free-writing, journaling, collecting, annotating. I used to journal relentlessly and with deep trust in the process. Sometime around my beginning to apply to MFA programs, and definitely by the time I started graduate school, I just… quit. I've been trying to look honestly at why that happened and to open the door to that climate of writing. I can't believe how hard it has been to allow myself to write without restraint and without expectation of concrete “results.”
ET: Do you have any words of advice for young poets?
LKM: You know what’s awesome and terrifying about this question is a) the number of times a year I look up articles on the internet titled things like “Umpteen Pieces of Advice for Young Writers” for my own consumption and b) the fact that, despite the aforementioned, I do actually have some words, here. I’m interpreting “young” to mean somebody who is still figuring out their poetry practice.
In my life, reading comes before writing. I must put reading first, or there is no writing that is creative in nature. I don’t think this must be anybody else's experience, but I do recommend that you ask questions about your reading that equal the depth and hunger and courage of the questions you ask about your writing. Desire as much for yourself as a reader of poetry as you do for yourself as a writer of poetry.
. . . That said, if you’re like me and you have a tendency to use your love for reading books as a defensive fortress in which you can hole up and avoid going out into the uncertain territory of writing, and you secretly yearn to be more connected to your own creative acts, then pencil that shit into your calendar and make sure you’re making time to explore your own language, too. (And don’t let how others relate to their time dictate how you relate to yours. Sometimes people who are giving you advice, including myself, are ignorant of certain life realities that make time operate very differently for their readers. Figuring out your practice is an ongoing process that you are best qualified to outline for yourself, not anyone who is less “young” in any way.)
Remember that growth can be painful, so don’t deny yourself that experience.
Remember that growth can be pleasurable, so don’t deny yourself that experience.
Lo Kwa Mei-en is the author of Yearling (Alice James Books) and The Bees Make Money in the Lion (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) as well as two chapbooks: The Romances from The Lettered Streets Press and Two Tales from Bloom Books. She is a Kundiman fellow from Singapore and Ohio, where she now lives and works in Cincinnati.