CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH SAL KANG
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Eutrophication,” we were immediately hooked by the speaker’s conversational but emotional language. How did you develop the voice for this poem?
Sal Kang: I initially intended for “Eutrophication” to be a spoken word poem; I really couldn’t envision the colloquial tone of the piece fitting well on the page. At the time, I was also convinced that performance poetry was far superior to merely reading the words with your eyes (I’ve very much changed my mind on this since then)—when I wrote, I would always keep in mind that an audience would be first hearing the poem come alive through my voice.
“Eutrophication” was one of the pieces that really helped me fall in love with traditional poetry again. After performing it a few times, I realized (with the help of some valuable feedback) that the poem may read better when placed on a page. So I tried something I hadn’t done in years: I reorganized the words on a piece of paper. I put some thought into punctuation and tried to make every line break meaningful. I ended up keeping the conversational language because it somehow still worked that way. Then it hit me: I had been trying to define poetry with a set of rules when, in fact, it can literally be anything.
I’m still a passionate lover of performance poetry—the difference is, I’m now also growing and learning how to break away from genre-specific conventions. I know that words like ‘convention’ and ‘rules’ don’t fit in this art form by their very nature, but sometimes I write ten poems and find that they’re all three minutes long. I still don’t use certain words I find difficult to pronounce. This is why experimentation is essential (to me, at least): because being good at one thing and one thing only won’t ever let you develop as an artist.
RR: We love how the images drive the narrative and create empathy in the exploration of such a complex topic as depression. Can you talk about how you developed the images and themes?
SK: The core concept of “Eutrophication” is very much based around a true story—I did, in fact, live next to a lake that dried up in the summer of 2018, a time when I wasn’t in a very good place mentally. This upsetting image triggered a specific memory of learning about eutrophication in biology class. At first, I struggled quite a bit to link the two experiences together: eutrophication is, after all, when fish and other creatures suffocate to death due to lack of oxygen in the water, whereas the lake probably didn’t suffer from this phenomenon at all. The poem came very naturally to me one day as I was taking a walk around the empty lake: I thought the juxtaposed images of the waterless hole and the flowers that were blooming all around it could serve as a powerful metaphor for my situation.
I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed the poem. It’s a piece that has helped me cope so many times when things got dark. I hope some readers of the Rappahannock Review will be able to find solace in my writing as well.
RR: Do you think writing is about a writer trying to engage with an audience, or is it more about the author engaging with themselves? What is one way you hope readers interact with “Eutrophication”?
SK: I think every poem will always touch more people than you, the writer, could ever imagine—if you let it, that is. Personally, the poems that have really kicked me in the face in the past were all about some deeply personal stories I couldn’t directly relate to. Instead, what moved me was the poet’s honesty and vulnerability. I especially admire this quality when it is spotted in a spoken word poet, as it is so much easier to write something for a good score or for applause when you know that the audience’s reaction will come almost immediately after your performance.
So I guess my answer to your question would be that a writer should always try to engage more with themselves than with an audience. Being a notorious people pleaser myself, I don’t exactly follow this advice either—but I’m trying very hard to. I think it’s very important to create art for yourself before anyone else; others will automatically want to engage with it if they find your work truthful.
In terms of interacting with “Eutrophication,” I would love nothing more than for readers to be a bit vulnerable themselves and share a time they felt like the persona in the poem. I find that this poem is a piece that sounds almost excessively angry when read in a happy state.
RR: What is your typical writing process like for poetry?
SK: With poetry, I find it very difficult to start writing without a very specific direction in mind. Sometimes, if I’m very lucky, a spark of inspiration drives me through an entire night as I finish a poem without sleeping. (This is very rare.) Most often, when I’m about halfway through or so, I discover that the initial idea wasn’t strong enough to carry through an entire poem. After this point, I end up postponing the writing for later. Then on another day when I’m inevitably feeling uninspired or “dry,” I scroll through my list of unfinished drafts and pick one I feel like I can continue. Being still quite inexperienced as a writer, I don’t feel very comfortable with the process of revision yet—fortunately, I’ll be attending a course that’ll teach me all about it over the summer. I think learning about writing is so invaluably important, and I very much looking forward to taking this next step of growth as a poet.
RR: You mention in your bio that you work in poetry, music, and art. How does your background as a multidisciplinary artist influence your writing?
SK: I think being experienced in different media definitely helps me to keep an open mind and not restrict my art. Sometimes I’ll find it easier or more fitting to express a certain subject or emotion in mindless sketches or a cool melody that’s been sitting at the back of my head rather than by dressing it up in words that don’t fit.
Having said that, though, writing poems is still my primary means of expression—it allows me to be carefree, yet it also teaches me to be meticulous and pay attention to detail. As I consider myself a poet before being anything else, it can be said that everything else is, at the end of the day, just a tool that helps me develop more as a poet.
Sal Kang’s work in Issue 6.2: