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10 Questions for Alex Kuo

Alex Kuo in Beijing’s 798 Photo credit: Zoe Filipkowska

Pyne’s count could be extrapolated further: a hundred cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per second. Such strikes account for about 10 percent of the annual wildfires in the United States, and since 1982, there has been an alarming rise in the total number, directly linked to the increasing temperatures due to climate change.
—from "That First Wildfire," Volume 62, Issue 4 (Winter 2021)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
It was probably during an early summer weekend morning in 1959 at a US Forest Service blister rust work camp, BRC 253 on Meadow Creek, near Clarkia, Idaho, more than sixty years ago after my sophomore year in college in central Illinois. It was after breakfast, and my three tent mates were jostling in the common laundry area hand scrubbing their work clothes on tin washboards with government issued bar soap in cold water piped in from the nearby creek, leaving me alone perched on my cot with a yellow legal pad and black felt tip pen writing the beginnings of a poem, materials I still use when I write the first drafts of of new poems. 

It was my third summer with the USFS, and each time I got off the Great Northern Empire Builder in Spokane, Washington, I was struck by the fresh conifer scents in this Bitterroot Mountains landscape, and how the eye acclimated to the flatness of the Midwest’s corn and soybeans took weeks to adjust to the distant mountain ranges that seemed to be constantly changing between what can be identified in a squint, then later remembered or imagined. I titled the poem “Idaho Landscape,” but brought out the draft each of the next two summers when I worked again in the same forest, revising it until I felt I got it right, before mailing it to R.R. Cuscaden of the Midwest in Chicago. It appeared a year later in 1963 in issue No. 9, one of my first publications.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
If I’m to be truthful about answering this question seriously with some meaningful detail, the list will have to be inordinately long. While I believe it’s generally true that most people are who they are because of their experiences, I have to add that for me at least, I am who I am because of the books I have read  and thought about, as well as books that I have written in pursuit of understanding those experiences that I have encountered directly or imagined, attempting to interpret them and sort through their chaos and randomness. These subjects have ranged from encounters with dramatic events such as the Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing’s 1989 political spring, to the Vietnamese Moung deer hunter facing the violence of Wisconsin’s sportsmen, to fighting forest fires in the Interior Northwest. 

This list is not chronological in the order that I first read them in the last seventy years, but what I remember now as I sit and answer this question, selecting only a few of the books that have made me who I am and write this way now. 

The first of course will be the poetry of William Carlos Williams, especially those poems that came out in 1954 and after, and the Paterson series.  Reading his work in my first semester in college awakened me to the possibilities of language and what it allowed me to see and understand in the world around me and beyond, eventually making it necessary to change my major from biology to literature.

Albert Camus’ long essay published as a book, The Rebel, has always been important to me in his challenges to the ever pervasive political dogma and ideology, especially within the context of the French and other European hegemony and colonialism;

This of course would lead to probably the first book I read as a junior in high school, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, in a literature course taught by a Scotsman in an exclusive and private high school in Hong Kong named King George V School, with a large portrait of KGVI facing the main entrance to the school, replaced in 1952 with one of QEII;

Richard Wright, Native Son, a novel that I believe should be required and more important reading for every high school education in this country—a better choice than Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye;

William Faulkner, especially Absalom, Absalom! which I have read several times, still pausing today to focus attention to his commitment and his tone of voice immersed in the cadence of his words and syntax;

Masha Gessen, The Future is History, pausing here too, almost every page, to take the time to think out clearly what she is writing and its implications;

Andre Malraux, Man’s Fate, reading it carefully to see how an expat with only a rudimentary knowledge of its history, culture and many linguistic dialects can handle a foreign country’s life-changing experiences in a novel;

Leslie Silko, Almanac of the Dead, which I believe is a must read for anyone seriously interested in understanding the American West;

Her work must be accompanied by two short story collections by Annie Proulx, Close Range and Bad Dirt, an unusually insightful look at the West again, this time by an outsider;

Any work by the Argentinian writer Luisa Valenzuela, whose fiction shows the importance of keeping our writers free from the constraints of our political, social and academic norms;

And of course her compatriot Jorge Borges, whose work pushes the powers of the human imagination into a realism beyond the mundane confines of our everyday experience;

And then there is Margaret Atwood’s collection of wonderful fictions that break down the linguistic and form boundaries between poetry and prose, and between the poem and the short story, in her 1983 Murder in the Dark, surreptitiously published by a wonderful independent, small press whose editorial office is located hidden in a downstairs rear entrance to an nondescript building in Toronto, her seventeenth book that no major commercial publishing house dared to touch, a book that threatens most MFA programs in writing—except the one at the University of East Anglia, but then it does not have a MFA program—especially those with low residency options;

In poetry, I must not neglect to mention the importance to me of the long poem of Hart Crane, “The Bridge,” and of course, the English [sic] poet T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and “The Waste Land,” and you’re right, Mr. WCW, he did drop the bomb on us with that;

And just in case we take ourselves too seriously and damage our brains, I must end this list with Martha Grimes’ Foul Matter, a fun read exposing the dangerous chasms in writing, publishing, reading, and the ever popular “best sellers list.”

What other professions have you worked in?
University administration. Position last held: academic vice chancellor, University of Colorado, 1974-80.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I find writing, unlike music or art, is generally portable, and I have been writing just about everywhere, even during important top level administrative meetings sitting at a busy round conference table elbow-to-elbow. But that works easier for poetry than fiction, which for me requires more prolonged periods of isolation.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Not really, but when there’s music, it could be Sonny Rollins, Esther Satterfield, Glen Gould or Tatiana Nikolayeva.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
No, but usually mornings are more productive when I’m tacking for ideas, something important to pursue.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
The wonderful author and thinker Joan Burbick, who remembers everything.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Unquestionably photography, a continuing series portraying human and animal interaction, and visual exploration of how we codify out immediate environment.

What are you working on currently?
I think at this point in my life, I’m done with writing novels, mostly because the way I write involves way too much work, principally research that often involves extensive field travel.  (My novel The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze involved nine years of research, so much that I felt qualified to teach a graduate seminar in high dam hydrology.) 

Since the completion of my last novel Cadenzas, I have been writing essays from my personal experience, such as “The First Wild Fire” in the December/2021 issue of The Massachusetts Review. I cannot come up with an accurate description for this specific sub-genre, except nature writing. But I’m very uncomfortable with that label, as I want to move as far away from it as possible, away from those memories recollected in tranquility, more like the investigative outreach of H.D. Thoreau, or Ann Zwinger’s exploration of aspens in Colorado’s higher elevations, or Helen Macdonald’s careful and lyrical deliberations, or how artist Ai Weiwei handled the narration of the 2008 catastrophic Wenchuan earthquake.

And occasionally poems.

What are you reading right now?
I usually find myself reading several books next to each other, and the four currently are John Wideman’s new short collection Look for Me and I’ll be Gone, Jack Carter’s Common Southwestern Native Plants, re-reading Paul Shepard’s The Others that carefully examines and our ecological relationship with other animals, and Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights (see my answer to the last question).

ALEX KUO’s new novel, Cadenzas, was published this November.

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