Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Tung-Hui Hu

By Paulette Beete
headshot of smiling Asian man in half-profile against background of weathered wood siding
NEA Literature Fellow Tung-Hui Hu. Photo by Elizabeth Bruch

"This might seem contradictory, but the advice I give to young poets is not to treat poetry as a career—to stay an amateur, a word that comes from the Latin amare, to love." -- Tung-Hui Hu

Banish all thoughts you might have of the fusty poet who can't tell Twitter from Tumblr and who can't imagine any form for a book but analogue. Instead, allow us to introduce NEA Literature Fellow Tung-Hui Hu, an accomplished poet with three published collections to his credit as well as a critical study of digital media, Cloud a Pre-History. Hu teaches in both disciplines at the University of Michigan, and he has received awards and fellowships from the San Francisco Foundation, the Michigan Society of Fellows, and Yaddo, among others. We interviewed Hu by e-mail about his literary ancestors, career advice, and the collision of poetry and the digital realm. NEA: What do you remember as your first experience of the arts? TUNG-HUI HU: The sound of a piano: my mother had spent her entire scholarship on a piano, which we trucked across the country for decades afterward. Growing up outside of DC, we were surrounded by major public institutions for the arts. My parents would take us to the National Gallery on weekends. The rockets in the National Air and Space Museum were more to my taste, but I still visit the National Gallery when I go back to DC. NEA: What was your journey to becoming a poet? HU: In Boulder, Colorado, when I was working for a political consultant as a summer intern, I stumbled across the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. I read my first poems out loud that summer, at an open mic at Penny Lane, a coffee shop that once hosted both Allen Ginsberg and the band Nirvana. But I didn’t feel like much of a poet until about 12 years later, around when my second book came out. I was doing my taxes and trying to decide what to put down as my occupation—maybe I was in between jobs—when I settled on “writer.” By declaring it, in a weird sort of way, I began to think of myself as a writer. NEA: If you look at the world of poets as a family tree, who are your ancestors? Who are your siblings? HU: Maybe Odysseas Elytis and Francis Ponge as ancestors. I could be the wayward nephew of contemporary poets such as A. Van Jordan and Srikanth Reddy—the one sibling in a family of brilliant artists that, you know, grows up to become an insurance salesman—because, like them, I’ve begun to work in the vein of documentary or investigative poetry, a poetry that draws from historical sources, found material, or other investigational processes. NEA: What's the best advice you've received in terms of your arts career? What advice do you like to give regarding an arts career? HU: That you have to treat your art as the most important thing you can do, even if all you accomplish for the day day is 5 lines of poetry. I learned this unspoken rule by example, from a group of extraordinary painters, sculptors, playwrights, composers, and other writers at my first artist’s residency. Until then, I’d never seen so much commitment firsthand; I tended to write casually and in my free time. This might seem contradictory, but the advice I give to young poets is not to treat poetry as a career—to stay an amateur, a word that comes from the Latin amare, to love. Spend too much time trying to be professional, doing what we call the “poetry biz”, and you will quickly fall out of love with poetry. NEA: How do you see the idea of failure in terms of your arts practice? HU: Ordinarily I’d praise failure, but since my last two long poems were about me failing at finding something, I’m having second thoughts. I flew to Yogjakarta, Indonesia looking for a rare fruit, but it was the wrong season. I would like my next trip to succeed. NEA: What's your obsession in your poetry? What are the questions you are perpetually trying to work out, or the story you are always telling (albeit in different ways)? HU: This is a tough one. I think I am continually trying to find ways to make big, abstract ideas sensate—inventing images, lyric speakers, and scenarios to tell impersonal stories about empire, political history, and so on. NEA: Can you tell us about the project that will be supported by your NEA fellowship? What was its genesis? What are you exploring in the collection? What will the NEA grant make possible that wouldn't be possible without it? HU: It’s called Common of Mast, and it explores forests and law and transgression. It started with me noticing that—historically, at least—forests had nothing to do with trees, but were simply spaces outside the normal rule of law. I’ve been thinking about the powerful mythical pull that the forest has on us, from Grimms’ Fairy Tales to what might count as a contemporary forest: Guantanamo, perhaps. NEA: I know you are also very interested in the digital realm. What's out there at the intersection of poetry and digital? What types of projects would you like to see that straddle or make use of those two spaces? HU: A few years ago, I worked with architect Vivian Lee to build a digital art installation The Last Time You Cried. We asked people to call in and talk about the last time they cried, and a series of algorithmic filters turned their recordings into poems—the more choked up they got as they spoke, the more ‘poetic’ the results. I’m thinking of working with GPS next year. There are many other talented writers and artists working in this realm; I’m excited to see who the Electronic Literature Organization includes in their next collection. My brilliant colleague Amy Sara Carroll recently published a book written in English, Spanish, and Java code that documented her work on the Transborder Immigrant Tool. That project provided migrant workers crossing the border with cell phones offering directions to water—as well as poems of welcome. NEA: How does your study of digital media inform your poetry, and vice versa? HU: They often circulate around similar ideas. Both my last book of poetry and my interest in the digital cloud—which led to my forthcoming book A Prehistory of the Cloud—were sparked by a strange claim of Euripides: the Helen that went to Troy was in fact a fake, made out of clouds. Digital media is similarly cloud-like and ethereal, and we tend to imagine it in the shape of what we as a society most desire. Of course, when writing poetry about clouds, I could take more liberties with my research: a friend even put me in touch with a National Weather Service meteorologist. NEA: What question do you wish I'd asked you, and how would you answer? HU: I wish you’d asked me where I will travel next year, when I’m taking my NEA fellowship, since I hope that someone reading this interview will invite me to visit!