An Interview with Travis Chi Wing Lau


Savannah Trent



Photo of the author sitting cross-legged on a cobblestone pavilion

 

Travis Chi Wing Lau is an assistant professor of English at Kenyon College; his courses and research focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, the history of medicine, and disability studies. He received his BA in English with a minor in Classcal Civilization from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2012 and his MA and PhD in English at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013 and 2018. His scholarship and public writing have been published in Nineteenth Century Gender Studies, The Routledge Companion to Health Humanities, Amodern, Synapsis, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of The Bone Setter, published by Damaged Goods Press in 2019, and his most recent chapbook, Paring, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020.

In Paring, Travis Chi Wing Lau explores what it means to be a person who lives with pain rather than a body that endures pain. His poetry refuses the static, chronological narrative of the pained body and begins to imagine new worlds in which the body made flesh loves, grieves, and embraces the often-vexed positions of queer, crip, and Asian identity. In this interview, Lau and I speak about epigraphs, desire, the bodymind, and the speculative possibilities of poetry.


Paring is available for purchase from Finishing Line Press here.

-Savannah Trent


 

Savannah Trent: Paring opens up with an epigraph, in which you define the word “pare,” which comes from the French “pare” and the Latin “parare.” If an epigraph functions as paratext and influences the reading of the text that follows, how do the varied definitions you provide seep into the poems themselves? In particular, I’m drawn to the seemingly contradictory definitions of pare which means at once to “to pride oneself in, glory in” and also “to prune, to shave.” Has your definition of “paring” changed since the publication of the chapbook?


Travis Chi Wing Lau: In conceiving of the collection, I found myself repeatedly returning to the central image of ripening fruit. This is why I adore so much Ann Ho’s cover design, which features a deeply erotic image of a mandarin orange peeling open (a little nod to the queer resonance of the word “fruit”). The way you framed this question precisely captures the contradiction inherent to the concept of paring that I find animating my poems here: How do we reconcile the fact that we often find ourselves needing to pare away that which once protected us and enabled us to survive? What (sweet) parts of us have yet to fruit? Because this collection works through the messy intersections of my queer, disabled, and Chinese American experiences, I needed a concept metaphor that could also make sense of the temporal element of my identities as always in states of becoming that render them sometimes at odds with one another. I’ve long thought of the process of growing up and maturing as a destructive one—a violent paring away of ways of being, models, frameworks that no longer serve me—but this collection has helped me think about paring as also about reveling in what ultimately does not get pared away, celebrating the very parts of me that resist being pared.


How do we reconcile the fact that we often find ourselves needing to pare away that which once protected us and enabled us to survive? What (sweet) parts of us have yet to fruit?

ST: Many of the poems in this collection are prefaced by an epigraph. I’m interested in how your epigraphs create bridges between creative and scholarly work. Can you talk about the process of choosing and pairing epigraphs to poems?


TCL: In my academic writing, I have long loved (and perhaps abused) epigraphs as a way of setting tone and situating arguments—I’ve been known sometimes to include two to three epigraphs in articles! Because of the structures of academia, which encourage and even enforce specialization, I used to think of my academic and creative writing practices as deeply separate—I was supposed to be a literary historian in training, not a poet. My encounter with disability studies profoundly challenged my assumptions about what theory could look like and could do: I didn’t have to cordon these two facets of my work but in fact build on their overlaps and tensions. If theory offers us ways of asking and attempting to answer difficult questions, so too does poetry.

Good poetry models some of the most generative theorizing, and from a disability perspective, theorizing deeply grounded in lived experience. Over time, I’ve come to realize that epigraphs serve multiple functions for me as a poet: as a form of ethical citation and recognition of influence, as a way of establishing dialogue with other writers and their work, as a way of signaling to my reader how they might read my work in light of its relationships to other writing. At their core, my epigraphs embody the deeply dialogic way I understand poetry and the broader practice of writing to be.


ST: This is something that resonates with me although I often have trouble picking epigraphs, so, I’m curious: Which comes first for you? The epigraph or the poem? Do you have a favorite epigraph in this collection?


TCL: I know this sounds like a deeply unsatisfying answer, but it can feel very chicken or egg for me! Sometimes, once the poem is done, I return to something I’ve read as a way of reframing what I’ve written—to expand its scope beyond what can feel like the myopia or solipsism of the poem’s world. But, as I think about it more, I’ve probably begun with more epigraphs as “mini prompts” that help me set up my poem as a kind of response—a rebuttal, a revision, a recapitulation. I will say, though, that epigraphs can sometimes be overdetermining in that they have such gravity or force that the poem almost feels secondary or tacked on. This is when I have to revisit whether or not I need to include them at all. Does the epigraph as a quotation do the work of the poem in and of itself?


In terms of my favorite epigraph from Paring, I’m going to be predictably indecisive. It would have to be either the quotation from Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys in “Jasmine (I)” (“How wonderful it was this coming to know, certain of the knowing to come. Every word was weighted and every glance an inquiry.”) or the quotation by Virginia Woolf from her essay, “On Being Ill,” in “Pithy,” which I still see as the very soul of this collection (“All day, all night the body intervenes”). The former, I think, really speaks to the amorphous and intangible ways desire impresses upon our bodyminds—given that the poem was about a former partner who ghosted me but whose presence I felt for years later, it was truly the perfect epigraph. The latter came from my teaching: I frequently teach Woolf’s essay, and it really sums up the way disabled lived experience can feel— like a constant intervention by one’s bodymind and the need for constant intervention to live alongside that bodymind.


ST: In addition to epigraphs, you also dedicate quite a few poems to other artists and thinkers. “Weeded” is dedicated to the poet and queer activist Paul Monette, while “Still Life” is dedicated to Thom Gunn, whose poem “The Man with Night Sweats” you mention in the notes. What influence do Monette and Gunn have on your work? The speaker in Gunn’s poem says, “My flesh was its own shield.” How does this image connect, if at all, to your idea of paring and the pain and joy of fruiting?


...how pleasure is always in proximity to permeability and infection, how the fruiting of queer joy is always in the shadow of the profound losses in our community where so much flesh has lost its shield or was never shielded in the first place.

TCL: I’ve talked about my indebtedness to both of these authors in several places, but the work of gay HIV/AIDS poets have profoundly shaped how I write about the vicissitudes of embodiment, particularly in terms of both chronic illness and desire. I remember encountering Monette for the first time during undergrad and being completely stunned by his tonal and formal intensity. As Monette himself describes of his approach in Love Alone, he “wanted a form that would move with breathless speed, so I could scream if I wanted and rattle on and empty my Uzi into the air.”


To permit no escape, to force the reader into inhabiting the intensities of grief, loss, and anger, felt on the one hand terrifying but also liberating for what queer writing could demand of readers. Gunn, for me, has always modeled what restraint and subtlety can achieve regarding those very same intense affects. Because he’s such a formalist, we get very tight and deliberate stanzas that grapple with experiences and feelings that often push up against the very limits of that form. The ruptures, the deviances, the failures are precisely where the poems are the most moving because the topic demands the form (or, to put it differently, the poem’s body) break.


The speaker in “The Man with Night Sweats” laments the transition of the body as a seemingly invincible medium of pleasure into one of uncertain infection and debility. The traumatic revelation of this transition that was happening to so many gay men in the eighties and nineties is something that I feel deeply haunted by as a gay writer who lives in an era where HIV/AIDS is no longer framed as a death sentence. But that does not excuse us from the work of memory and history, which poetry has helped me remain accountable to even in my own meditations about my experiences. I think Paring grapples with these two dimensions of queer embodiment in the wake of HIV/AIDS—how pleasure is always in proximity to permeability and infection, how the fruiting of queer joy is always in the shadow of the profound losses in our community where so much flesh has lost its shield or was never shielded in the first place.


ST: Your first chaplet, The Bone Setter, is a collection of six poems that directly address the body in pain using a familiar linear narrative as indicated by the poem titles: “Diagnosis,” “Prognosis,” “Treatment,” “Cure,” “Aftercare,” and “Second Opinion.” Paring seems to operate as a response to this expected narrative by forcing, or challenging, the reader to reevaluate their understanding of both chronic pain and the capacity to live with pain. Can you elaborate on your overall thought process in writing and sequencing these poems?


TCL: The Bone Setter was originally one long poem I wrote in movements in response to receiving chiropractic care during my undergraduate years. Disability studies has helped me think more critically about my disabled experience as a temporal one: one that deviates from normative, linear trajectories always aspiring toward cure. I wanted to crip that narrative by ostensibly structuring the chaplet in the familiar structure of curative linearity while undermining it within the individual poems themselves, which underscore the ambivalence, discomfort, violence, and resistance that accompanied my process of seeking care for my scoliosis-related disabilities.


The last poems in the sequence especially speak to the perverse ways that the medical industrial complex’s curative imaginary actually fails to offer anything close to care for those whose conditions are incurable or chronic. It was devastating to see how medicine was less and less invested in my wellbeing the moment its agents realized I would not yield the outcomes they expected or desired. Ghosted in my encounters with medicine were my own desires, my own paradoxically painful experiences of trying to ameliorate my own pain. I wanted my poems not to exorcize these ghosts but reanimate them in spite of medicine’s desire to disavow the many things that historically have haunted and continue to haunt it.


ST: Your work addresses Elaine Scarry’s 1985 The Body in Pain and her oft-cited claim that we cannot understand another person’s pain, which gestures toward a failure of language. I’m interested in how, to borrow a phrase from Jack Halberstam, this queer failure invites poetic explorations. The poems in your latest volume refute the narrative of failed language and unknowable pain through their insistence on chronicling what it means to live through pain rather than thinking about the sometimes-degenerative nature of pain. How have these works and others shaped your poetry?


TCL: I love your turn to Halberstam here, who I just recently cited in a keynote I gave for Zoeglossia's annual retreat. I’m deeply committed to Halberstam’s framing of failure as productive, as a queer art and practice that resists and dispels the fantasies of aspirational success and infallibility. As I suggested to the poets embarking on days of workshops together, crip identity is so defined by failure in that we refuse the normative impulses of compulsory ablebodymindedness and the ableist ways our society and culture work upon us. Learning to embrace failure rather than disavowing it has been crucial for me, especially as a poet who has not always felt welcome in poetry circles because of my nontraditional way into poetry and because of what I remain committed to as the very worthy subjects of poetry. I try to practice failure with grace, in public, in community with other crips.


With regard to Scarry, I remember being so moved by her work when I first encountered it in graduate school because it helped me make sense of the alienation I felt growing up with pain I didn’t fully understand. The understandable yet frustrating lack of engagement with disability aside, I found myself ultimately dissatisfied with her violent, individualistic model of pain as necessarily destroying language. I always understood pain as effusive, as full of language—but perhaps language that we, as a culture, have not attended to deeply and compassionately at great costs to our communities in pain. As such, I’ve committed my work to imagining new languages of pain and celebrating the breadth of metaphorical and figurative language that pain engenders rather than reducing it to arhetorical trauma.


ST: You’ve talked before about your identity as a scholar-poet and how poetry offered you the space to question and sit with difficult narratives. I’m interested in hearing more about this experience and how you approach writing in general.

TCL: I’ve always resonated deeply with Eavan Boland’s understanding of poetry as beginning “where certainty ends.” I came to poetry precisely because I felt less and less certain that academic arguments and theory were getting me closer to the answers I was seeking about embodiment and disabled experience. When I began to relinquish the hubristic assumption that my training as a literary scholar somehow enabled greater access to that mythical, capital T “Truth,” I discovered just how meaningful it was to speculate without the comfort of neat and tidy conclusions or even expectations.


Rather than the antagonistic mode of critique or meticulous defense of an argument that presumes its outcome before it even begins, poetry allowed me to sit with uncertainty and ambivalence, both of which are not very welcome in academic writing. I could be wrong, noncommittal, queer (as in meandering, deviating) in my thinking. Poetry has taught me how to better be in conversation with my peers (who I imagine beyond simply those in the academy) and how to be an interlocutor that does not so quickly foreclose avenues of inquiry. Yes, and? Yes, and? A refrain that continues to be a mantra for me now—how do I contribute to a set of conversations, traditions, questions, forms that have preceded me and will outlive me?


ST: In the poems “Seeded” and “Jasmine (I),” the speaker grapples with the intimacies of desire and the loneliness of a remembered embrace. How does desire function as a means of expression through which the narrative of perpetual childhood—an attribute given to queer, disabled, and Asian peoples—is refuted?


We are props for other people’s desires or the outlets by which other desires can be violently expressed.

TCL: What a generous observation—thank you! I realized a throughline across these three different identity formations, as I have lived them, is desire. When I first came out at eighteen, I realized how quickly my Asian Americanness was at odds with my queerness. This is not just because of the value system of my Chinese and Catholic family, but it is also among mainstream queer culture, which both fetishized people whose bodies looked like mine and presumed what forms my desire should take and how it should be expressed (if at all). As a disabled man, I realized how quickly ablebodyminded people presumed I did not have desire or did not have the embodiment capable of expressing it.


Paring, in many ways, was an attempt to recover what my desire looks and feels like in the face of so many people who have presumed my identities as antithetical to desire or only subject to the desires of others. The persistent narrative of perpetual childhood—or to frame it differently, racist, homophobic, and ableist infantilism—is predicated on the reductive stereotype that queer, Asian, and disabled people do not bear nuanced desires and therefore our desires do not merit recognition or fulfillment. We are props for other people’s desires or the outlets by which other desires can be violently expressed. To insist otherwise is so often inconceivable, even to people who claim to be on the right side of history.


ST: I love your response! However, I’m wondering if you could speak more about the ways in which you engage with desire through the poetic space. I feel like we often think of desire in relation to sex, but what other forms of desire are there? How do your poems queer the reader’s preconceived notions of it?


I want to do due diligence to what desire is and imagine more boldly what forms desire may take and what encounters with it may feel like.

TCL: You’ve identified precisely the question I’m still working through in my work! Your question makes me revisit an adjacent term that I feel gets misused and sometimes neglected: erotic. I think the conflation of desire with sex limits the ways we think about desire as a capacious affect, force, sensation, and experience. It can be so much more than sexual wanting because it indexes so many forms of longing that we may have, however violent, quiet, or even absent. While I identify as a deeply sexual person, I find myself equally exhausted by queer identities as being defined purely in terms of sex (especially as it is being weaponized now by the Right). It is almost as if hypersexuality is a prerequisite for identification and inclusion, especially among gay men. In my work, I try to capture the erotic, the desirous without the turn to the pornographic, which is not to say that I want to sanitize queerness. Rather, I want to do due diligence to what desire is and imagine more boldly what forms desire may take and what encounters with it may feel like.


ST: I often find myself thinking about what makes a particular work Asian American and how literature written by minority groups also becomes a space of performance. Your poems, however, seem to resist that type of performance, so in what ways do you feel that your poems speak to your identity as Chinese American?


TCL: This question has long been one that has haunted me, especially in the wake of early reception of my very first published pieces. I remember being rejected by multiple publications for my work not reading “Asian” enough, as if my articulation of Chinese American experience was not checking off the right boxes for the publication to virtue signal some commitment to “diversity.” I resented (and in many ways, still do) the belief that minoritized writers need to rehearse their trauma for their work to be legitimate or worthy of publication. With regard to pain specifically, I feel editorial gatekeeping and publishing cultures actually perpetuate certain narratives of pain (or painlessness) as the only ones worth telling by underrepresented writers. As many other writers have suggested, what about other experiences like joy and pleasure that do not conform to the models of minority identity that a predominantly white readership and white editorial leadership has deemed aesthetically interesting and thus worthy of recognition?


The other facet of this question is my own deep insecurities about how much I’ve benefited from my assimilation, such that my engagements with language and articulations of experience often “pass” as white. As someone born in Hong Kong already in the shadow of British colonialism and in a profession committed to the study of English literatures, this irony is not lost on me, especially as I am just beginning to develop my sense of identity as a poet. In ways I’m not so proud of, I think I’ve distanced myself from a kind of explicit “Asianness” or “Chineseness” because I felt it limited my capacity to tell the stories I wanted to tell—in particular, the ones where the other axes of my identity, like disability and queerness, actually are in deep tension with that Asianness or Chineseness. I didn’t want to be complicit in my own fetishization, but in some ways, I realize that also means I may write in ways that conform to a kind of model minority or even acceptable whiteness that makes my work legible to audiences. But I think this is also so much of Asian American and diasporic experience—disidentification and ambivalence about both the “Asian” and the “American” parts, such that we often feel unmoored from the peoples we’re supposed to see ourselves in community with. This unmooring and dislocation, which appears in so many different forms in my work, weirdly feels the most Chinese American to me.


ST: Lastly, I’d love it if you could speak to the speculative possibilities of care, kindness, and kinship, which we all deeply yearn for. Have you considered how your work, both scholarly and creative, gestures toward a more inclusive future?


TCL: This is perhaps the hardest question you have posed and one that I think about often in terms of my teaching and writing. I want to return to the issue of failure, which has catalyzed a profound set of conversations I continue to have with myself and now with circles of people I trust: What were the experiences, sensations, feelings, and histories I wanted to engage with in my work and why? Why do I remain committed to them? Who do I speak to in my work and who do I feel accountable to? Whose work do I respect and have I invested enough in the work of the community in which I am claiming membership? I realized very early on that my own experience of not being welcomed in traditional workshop spaces during my undergraduate career greatly impacted my formation as a poet: I was, like so many young poets, defensive of my work and only able to conceive of my work as my work, as my truths to be told in verse.


When we refuse to see ourselves in relation to crip kin, to crip history, we facilitate the cruel project of ableism in its gleeful erasure of who we are.

But I’ve since come to understand my work now as deeply relational: indebted to, in dialogue, and in solidarity with those who made possible the very articulations of crip experience that I claim as my own now. I think for us to conceive any future more inclusive, we must think about our work as having responsibilities to others, as inevitably public even in its most private incarnations. For me, this is another way to think about audience: who are my potential interlocutors, potential kin, potential collaborators? From a disability community perspective, our responsibility as a community is to preserve not just our experiences as disabled people but also our connections to the past, because ableism so often depends on our forgetting. When we refuse to see ourselves in relation to crip kin, to crip history, we facilitate the cruel project of ableism in its gleeful erasure of who we are.


Crip poetry, the poetry I believe in, refuses such erasure by stubbornly insisting on itself and its indebtedness to others—this is care work. The only way we arrive at a sense of what Merri Lisa Johnson has called “crip willfulness” that can powerfully animate our writing and thinking is through an embrace of the failures that got us here in the first place. Rather than disavow failure, we need to see it as a starting place for generative possibility—this is in line with the very spirit of crip and the social justice movements that underpin it. I hope we can fail our way toward better futures that have space and time for all of us.


 

SAVANNAH TRENT is a PhD candidate at Florida State University studying contemporary Asian American and multiethnic literature with a focus on empire, race, war, and the invisible labor that fuels imperialist desires. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Miami University of Ohio and a BA in Neuroscience from Knox College. Her scholarly work has been presented at the Society for the Multiethnic Study of Literature and the Association for Asian American Studies.