Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: Hour of the Ox

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and the 2016 Florida Book Award bronze medal for poetry. She has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, and her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2015, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, and more.

Marci was interviewed by Yaddyra Peralta for Sliver of Stone.

Miami poet Marci Calabretta at her home in Coral Gables.
By Scott McIntyre

Without giving away too many secrets, can you talk about Hour of the Ox as a book project? You have created a world that seems all at once imagined, mythical and palpably real. How did this book begin to take shape?

A lot of research went into this book. It started with a few seed poems that dictated the loose narrative of the collection, and as I wrote more poems toward the manuscript, I began to see patterns and holes in the narrative where a poem idea could fit. I like to throw everything into my work to see what juxtapositions come out, so research included reading historical narratives and news articles about the inhabitants of Jeju, Korean folklore, watching Youtube videos of the pearl divers singing, and eating a lot of tangerines. A lot of these poems exist in liminal spaces between the real and imagined.

The first poem in the book is “Anti-Elegy” which reads almost as a catalog of losses and gratitudes. If the anti-elegy were a form, how would you define it?

That’s a great question. I’m not sure such a form would be the perfect opposite to an elegy. I love the idea of a catalog of losses and gratitudes, which in “Anti-Elegy” are the same. I’m very interested in things that appear to be opposites but are more like slant-binaries, if you will. For example, cows and horses, milk and orange juice, love and violence. All of those things might be classed in the same categories or as opposites, depending on context. I would like to think a poetry form like the anti-elegy would capture those pairings in such a catalog. I also think that the list of objective images would create some sort of powerful emotional landscape that adds up to something much deeper than mere grieving. To me, this particular poem serves as a twin for “Songs of Thirst: Six Sijo” and is much like the memory orbs in Pixar’s Inside Out, where a memory is made more complex by the multitude of emotions one can simultaneously feel. I prefer my poems to create an emotional atmosphere through concrete imagery, and while “Anti-Elegy” functions as epigraph, catalog, and cast list for the rest of the manuscript, it also requires real engagement from the reader to know what sort of emotional response they are supposed to have.

One thing that you captured here is the sense of a culture–not just the culture of a nation or ethnicity but also the culture of a family and/or a place–and, in this case, a matriarchal culture. The women in the book figure prominently, while the men move almost like shadows. A lot of this book, I gather, is inspired by the pearl divers of Jeju Island. What about the haenyeo inspired you to write poems?

When I started writing these poems, I was interested in exploring an aspect of Korean history that I had never before had access to as a Korean American adoptee. But then I stumbled upon a New York Times article about the South Korean “sea women” who became the breadwinners and shifted the economic balance on the island. I was enamored of these women in their fifties and sixties who had become such public pillars of the island’s culture by taking the most demeaning jobs. They are also physically powerful. I certainly can’t hold my breath for three minutes while freediving. Pearl-diving is a dying art, too, as the younger generations move on to other careers and these women grow older. The intersectionality of personal family obligations and culture duties within a collectivist society always fascinates me, and I wanted these poems to be able to simultaneously explore both this slice of Korean history and the idea of personal and national duty. The great poet Marilyn Chin once said, “The personal is political.” Within a single family’s experience can resonate many facets of both the history and spirituality of a whole culture.

An interesting aspect of a lot of these poems are the macro-details. The poem “All the Sheep Have Scattered” includes images such as “your hair’s whorl” and “the light sewn into your skin” (which echoes the mother sewing “pearls into my skin” in “Old Country, New Country). I wondered how much of this had to do with influence, not just of your favorite poets or even teachers, but perhaps particular works you were reading while putting together the manuscript.

If I were to create a family tree of all the books that influenced this manuscript, I would certainly include Ai’s Collected Poems; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris; everything by Robert Hass; Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief; everything by John Keats; Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes from the Divided Country; everything by Li-Young Lee; Osip Mandelstam’s Stolen Air: Selected Poems; everything by Sylvia Plath; Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Departure; Richard Siken’s Crush; Tracy K. Smith’s The Body’s Question; Franz Wright’s The Beforelife; and Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects. From each of these books I saw something different that I wanted to learn, whether it was etherealizing line breaks, emotional landscapes, pinning an abstraction to a concrete image, or stringing a lyric sequence into a loose narrative. During these years, of course, I read too many books to name here, but I treated each text as a textbook, and each poem that came out of it as a kind of exam.

I remember you saying that you like book projects, which I gather to mean collections bound by a strong thematic or narrative thread. Any new book projects on the horizon?

Everything is still in the early stages at this point, but I have a few different projects in the works. I think I’ll forever be a project-based writer. I’ve been writing a series of lyric essays on Korean food, pop culture, and adoption; and always more poems about Korea.

***

Marci serves as a program coordinator for Miami Book Fair and producer for The Working Poet Radio Show. www.marcicalabretta.com.

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