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"Snakes and the Forbidden Act of Watching: An Interview with Lee Ann Roripaugh"

Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry: Dandarians (Milkweed Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review. Her latest collection, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 is forthcoming with Milkweed Editions.


“Snakes and the Forbidden Act of Watching” was originally published in Issue 36.1.


I’d like to start off with a fun question that relates to your Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry collection, Year of the Snake. I, too am the Year of the Snake, so I find it so beautiful that we can connect on this commonality. According to the eastern zodiac, snakes are known for their stealthy, cunning, and sexy nature. “Snake Song,” which opens Year of the Snake reads: “I was born in the year of the snake/and maybe this is why / I speak with a forked tongue.”

A forked tongue is a physical characteristic of snakes: a tongue that “forks” splits in two. A forked tongue is also a metaphor for a characteristic in speech, referring to language that is duplicitous, or saying one thing and meaning another. In both cases, a duality exists, and that duality also relates to the speaker’s half-Caucasian, half-Japanese identity. Can you comment more on this duality, along with how snakes are viewed by western culture vs. eastern culture? How do cultural conceptions affect the speaker’s viewpoints towards her snake-like characteristics?

Oh, it makes me so happy that you’re a Snake, too! So much Snake-y goodness! This is such a fantastic question. For me, Year of the Snake was very much a book about transformation and transformative potential. And so in addition to being personally symbolic with respect to the eastern zodiac, snakes were particularly significant for me in this text because of their capacity for transformation, change, and shapeshifting—their ability to shed their past selves and skins, their liminal sinuousness.

The idea of the forked tongue evokes the fluid duality of the speaker’s half-Caucasian, half-Japanese identity, yes, as well as a kind of liminal linguistic duality, in terms of being stranded in between languages: a Japanese sensibility that is unable to fully express itself within the confines of the English language, and an American sensibility that will never be able to explain itself within the missing mother tongue of the Japanese language—a space that is inadequately, yet perhaps resonantly, patched over with a hybridized Japanglish and creolized pidgin that highlights the arbitrariness, and perhaps the impossible duplicity, if you will, of expression in any mother tongue.

And I think it’s this very complexity, this shiftiness of the snake’s shapeshiftiness, that troubles western sensibilities. While eastern culture seems able to embrace contradictory dualities of snakiness (beauty, stealth, cunning, wisdom, power, danger, sexiness), western culture seems to insist on the binary opposition of self-or-othering, so that the snake is reduced to a one-dimensional stereotype of evil (serpent with the apple, the “zero at the bone,” the “danger noodle”).

Your poems, “Innocence” and “Snake Wife” both work as commentaries on audience and the act of watching the “forbidden.” The speaker in “Innocence” narrates: “My parents wrapped an old sheet / around the playpen to shield me/from the television, but I learned / to pull up the edge and peer out / from underneath to see newsreels / from Vietnam.” As a young child, this speaker is already curious about the atrocities of the world. On the other hand, the speaker of “Snake Wife” comments on her husband’s voyeuristic tendencies towards her: the way she “shed[s] the intricate layers / of my kimono” and “veils” herself while he watches and admires her beauty. How do you look at the relationship between poetry and this “forbidden” act of watching?

I feel as if so much poetry hinges upon various and differing acts of attentiveness and attunement: attentiveness to the surrounding world and culture; attentiveness to one’s own inner life, emotional weather, and psyche; attentiveness to intellect; attentiveness to language’s (in)ability to (mis)represent; attentiveness to the materiality of language itself, etc. Poetry, for me, feels like using various types of antennae to tune into different kinds of signals. And in the case of documentary poetics, as in documentary photography, I think there are real ethical questions related to the act of watching, or witnessing—tied up in both the direction of the gaze, as well as its relationship to privilege, or power. I feel that as artists and poets we need to be curious about the world, which means being prepared to witness the atrocities of the world, and that the only possible way to move forward from the systemic oppressions that lead to atrocities, is to be willing to move through them—to face and confront them head on.

But gazing/watching/witnessing is never a neutral political act, and the danger, of course, is for the gaze to potentially become exploitative or objectifying. I don’t have an easy answer for how to avoid this danger, other than witnessing with compassion, and being scrupulous about respecting the agency and subjectivity of (and also listening to!) one’s subjects.

And so it’s this, to my mind, that accounts for the difference in the acts of watching/unveiling that you’ve noted so insightfully above: direction and privilege/power. In the instance of the poem, “Innocence,” the very young child who lifts up the sheet from her playpen to watch the footage of Vietnam is powerless with respect to the cultural machinery of war, and is both imprinted and haunted by, the witnessing of these images. In the instance of “Snake Wife,” on the other hand, the speaker has expressly forbidden the husband from watching her shapeshift into her snake form, and so his voyeurism is, among other things, non-consensual. She understands that their relationship relies upon the illusion in which she veils herself in a performance of human femininity (a type of assimilation, perhaps?), allowing the husband to see (also exoticize?/stereotype?/fetishize?) her in the guises that he is most comfortable with—and that should he see her in her animal form, he will find her intolerably alien, monstrous, other.

And on a related note, again, I want to say how much I love your craft talk, “Five Uneasy Pieces About (Writing) Anger.” How do you look at the relationship between this “forbidden act of watching” and anger?

Thank you! And I think there’s a definite connection between the “forbidden act of watching” and anger, and that for me, the anger in the essay always stems from instances in which vulnerable and/or marginalized subjects are (oftentimes violently) stripped of their agency and treated, instead, as objects. Subjects who are then—in subsequent attempts to speak about or represent these violences—are shushed, silenced, dismissed. For me, this articulates the twin hegemonies of occupying any marginalized subject position: othering/objectification and erasure. To break silence challenges the dominant culture’s false “mastery” in terms of objectification via stereotype (already a kind of erasure or invisibility), but to speak out in any way always seems to risk the backlash of being silenced, or shamed, yet again. It shouldn’t require this much emotional energy, or psychological bravery, to be a speaking subject, yet for all too many of us, this is the case, and it’s exhausting, and angering, and crazy-making.