Radical Imagination, or Empathy: An Interview with Eric Tran

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The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer is the debut of Eric Tran, released through Autumn House Press in Spring 2020 and selected by Stacey Waite as the winner of the 2019 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize. He previously published the chapbooks Affairs with Men in Suits (Backbone Press, 2014) and Revisions (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). Eric Tran is a writer and physician, based in North Carolina. 


FWR: How are you doing?

Eric Tran: I’m doing well. I just got off this really intense rotation and this is the first weekend where I don’t have to go back on Monday. It feels like a nice chance to get back into the world. How are you?

FWR: I’m doing alright. It’s week two of school, so it’s back at it. 

ET: Are you online or in person?

FWR: We’re in person. I have a few students who are remote, but the majority are in person. My students are wearing masks and they’re trying to stay apart, but our school is not sized so that they can always stay apart appropriately. It feels like a waiting game, unfortunately. 

ET: It’s a valiant effort, and hopefully people stay safe. Hopefully, it’s not that people get hurt and that’s why things have to change. 

FWR: Yes, I think, and I’m sure you see this too, that folks want to do the right thing but there is this disconnect between wanting to do the right thing and not wanting their lives to change. 

ET: Yes, I feel like there is this lack of radical imagination, otherwise known as empathy, of being willing to sacrifice what you have. It’s very unfortunate that the only way for some people to be able to recognize that tragedy can befall them is when it happens to them. 

FWR: Exactly. It’s an inability to imagine a broader context. Which, I guess, brings me to the way The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer obviously plays with characters, plots and themes from various comic books, but I’m interested to talk about to what extent the structure and style of comic books influenced the writing of your poetry. Did you feel the structure of a comic page influencing the way you visualized poems’ layouts or their syntax?

ET: I think that we forget that poems are visual objects, in addition to being text to be read, which I think gives another layer of richness. I prefer to write in white space. I think a line by itself is just a little too lonely, it’s a little too much to be putting on that single line. So I prefer couplets or tercets, lines that have more space around them. 

Speaking of the coronavirus, I’ve been thinking a lot about breath in general. I’ve been working on this essay about breath, how necessary it is but also how we take it for granted. We assume that it will always be there, that it can always be there when we need it. For example, if we’re reading a prose block and we need air, we can look away from the page, but what happens when the text requires us to stay with it? If there is something so important that we must stay with it, can we give the reader some air within it? Does taking a breath necessarily mean stepping away from it? I think adding white space to your poems or your prose is a way to strike a compromise. I think that exists within comics as well. 

I’ve been reading a lot of Tom King, and he is really drawn to this idea of six panels per page, which can be fairly rigid or overwhelming. But because he has the gutter, the space between panels or the margin, this margin allows us to take space between each panel where you can linger for as long as you need. I think the white space on the page of a comic book does a lot of things that the white space in poetry does; for example, moving from one panel to the next, sometimes it’s linearly connected (such as in one scene someone is sitting on a couch and in the next scene they’re standing up), but something will have happened between those two panels that we didn’t see. The white space signals that a jump is going to happen, and it clues the reader to take a breath and take the jump with the narrator. Or, sometimes if it’s a more experimental comic book, something even bigger can shift in that white space. Tom King, or rather the layout artist, decides how big that white space gets to be; sometimes it’s very minimal and sometimes it’s very large. I think comic books are playing with that narrative leap, much like poets like to. And that’s if we’re just talking about comic books that adopt that layout with panels and gutters. Some comics will have someone leaping across that white space or a hand reaching from one panel to another, which I think is very daring. Similar to poetry, that space is not just a place to take a breath but it’s also a place to do work in, to transform the poem or the layout.

FWR: What you’re saying about taking these leaps makes me think of the trust the writer must have in their audience and the material that they are generating.   

ET: Most certainly, and a willingness that the reader must have that they are in good hands. I think that adhering to a kind of form, even if you end up breaking it, or it’s a loose or challenging form, gives that trust in the confidence in the artist and a structure to lean on. We all need to structure, even if we demand freedom; it must be freedom from something. 

I think that adhering to a kind of form, even if you end up breaking it, or it’s a loose or challenging form, gives that trust in the confidence in the artist and a structure to lean on. We all need to structure, even if we demand freedom; it must be freedom from something. 

FWR: Thinking of how you lean towards couplets or tercets, how did you find your way into the prose poems that are in the manuscript?

ET: I started my MFA as a nonfiction writer, but it turns out all my friends are poets, so I got pulled in. To be quite honest, I think that prose is always poetry. I was toying with sentences over and over, trying to make them beautiful, and it hit me one day that maybe I should make my words beautiful, as opposed to trying to build a narrative. A gateway from prose writing to poetry can be the prose poem. In this book, I think the prose poems make sense; I tend to be a poet who has a lot of narrative lines in his poems. I have been moving more towards more associative ways of using logic, but I do tend towards narratives. I think that one way to present it is in a prose block, because that’s how we tend to think of stories. And then I think that within that prose block, we can make leaps from one idea to another because there is a tight structure on which to rely. Then within those borders, you can be as experimental as you would like to be. In a way, this mirrors a comic book panel, which is usually rectangular and bound by a back and front cover. 

In the book, I make a lot of leaps, such as from the Pulse mass shooting to the X Men comic books, which, in some ways, is not a hard association to make, but in other ways it is a hard association to make, moving from a comic book and kids’ TV show and multimillion dollar franchise to something very visceral, very real, and impacts people who are not multi-millionaires, who are not mainstream. I think the structure of the prose poem block contains those two more tightly than if you gave the distance of white space from each other; entropy might tear them apart. If you give them structure, they adhere more tightly. 

FWR: Yes, exactly. I think there is so much juxtaposition in the text; I grew up in a Pentecostal house and the language that jumps to mind is being “of the world, not of the world”, or here, of the body and the body in these different places, whether it’s the body in the comic book or in an action film. I think of the way you move from high ekphrastic poetry to a poem that considers the guitar player in Mad Max: Fury Road (“Self Portrait as the Fire”) or Chris Evans (“Portrait as Captain America Holding a Helicopter with a Bicep Curl”), and then bringing it back to the body of someone helping a drag queen descend the stairs; the way that you’re moving in and out of these different worlds allows the various visualizations of the body to come together in a really cool way.

ET: I purposely try, as I said in my MFA thesis, to mix the high and the low. In some ways it feels very purposeful and effortful, and in some ways it feels very natural. We think of Keith Haring, who we think of currently as high art, or Frank O’Hara, who died on Fire Island, which was known for gay revelry, so these contradictions already exist together. And although those things exist together, I think hegemony, or the white washing of things, wants to push them apart. What our job is as artists is to reveal the truths that are already there. 

hegemony, or the white washing of things, wants to push them apart. What our job is as artists is to reveal the truths that are already there. 

FWR: I think that goes back to what you said when we first started talking about radical imagination and having that empathy to imagine a better world, or a world that responds to everyone in it. Did you feel like that in choosing or attempting to seek out truth, that that impacted your diction or the images you chose, in order to create a more expansive or more nuanced view of the world? I’m thinking of a poem like “Treatise On Whether to Write the Mango”, both for how the shifts in language mirror the shifting identities throughout the text, but also how you deploy interruption in the poem: “your ever-shitty teenager/ attitude (American!), never clearer/ when I woke wanting mangos/ instead of the rubbery jackfruit/ she woke at dawn to peel/ away from the thin white casing and so/ of course mangos”. 

ET: I love the idea of radical imagination. I was part of this social justice, podcast listening group, and the podcast we were listening to was about how the principles of America were always set up to be against Black people. So we must radically imagine a new world, because the rules by which we play are inherently always going to resist change. Speaking of entropy, things always revert back to what they were. 

So, using that radical imagination to imagine a world where everyone has a place within it, why then do we have to adhere to the diction, the imagery, the logic that existed in these previous worlds? I think poetry already does this. It supposes that there are other ways to make sense of the world, outside of the linear joining of two words to make meaning. If we accept that power, we can use whatever diction, syntax, imagery we want to hear. For example, there are times when I juxtapose the word “twink” with the word “prayer”. In a radically imagined world, I would love for twinks to be alongside prayer, and in my world, they are.       

It supposes that there are other ways to make sense of the world, outside of the linear joining of two words to make meaning. If we accept that power, we can use whatever diction, syntax, imagery we want to hear.

FWR: It also creates humor too. In thinking about your work, and describing it to folks, you’re so clearly wrestling with grief, but there is also humor. With humor comes that sense of life. It doesn’t have to be a monopoly on one feeling. 

ET: Yes, that speaks to this balance of extremes. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is in mental health, we work with the idea of the dialectic, which are two disparate truths that seem to contract each other, but they come together to form a deeper truth. For example, a bowl is something that has had something removed from it. So, you have the something and the lack of something, and together they form this new truth, which is a bowl. So thinking about grief and joy, sex and death, not necessarily to find a balance between them, but instead attempting to establish a dialectic in which they’re speaking to each other. That’s something I love about the cover of this book; it’s neon, in your face, very gay, but it belies that there is a lot of tragedy within in. I don’t think that’s hiding anything. The first poem (“Starting with a Line by Joyce Byers”) helps lay out pretty clearly what the book is going to be about. 

FWR: That jumps me to the Lectio Divina series, which meditates on characters ranging from Emma Frost to Hektor the Assassin, and the way that by holding those disparate parts together, the reader sees the threads that exist across different characters but also different experiences. To me, these worked as stepping stones to take the reader through the text. How did the Lectio Divina series of poems originate?

ET: The concept of Lectio Divina is from the monastic Christian tradition of approaching a sacred text in different ways. I was introduced to it through a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which is run by two folks who have Masters of Divinity. They approach the chapters of Harry Potter as if each has something to teach them, if they approach it earnestly enough. I started listening after Trump was elected in 2016; I stayed with it because, I believe in the first episode, one host said to the other ‘thank you for teaching me how to love again’. I felt like this was something we needed to relearn how to do. It is a funny, tongue-in-cheek show, but it is deeply serious as well. I also love the idea that they taught me prayer, because it feels like justice. 

I think queer people, in particular, often feel excluded from spiritual practices, either because they feel excluded from many denominations or they feel like that need to decide between their queerness or their spiritual life, rather than having a dialectic or harmony of the two together. So, having a spiritual practice is a way of reintroducing a process by which to experience the world. During that time, I was also looking for a spiritual practice because there was a lot of loss in my life and I was thinking about how we learn to grieve. It’s not taught, formally or informally, and yet it’s one of the most important things we must learn how to do. I think spirituality can teach you how to do that, but if we exclude an entire group of people, who inherently have a lot of grief in their life, that is an injustice. So, using something like Lectio Divina feels like, to me, an act of justice to reclaim those spaces and bring them to my people.

FWR: This is making me think of how in so many spiritual traditions, there is also the sacredness of the body, and in your work, you have such attention to the body in your work, as if viewing it as a sacred text, a thing to be treasured, even if it doesn’t exist in the structures deemed appropriate or acceptable.

ET: I think most certainly the body is a text to be approached, spiritually so. To me, prayer is the act of paying attention to something you’re working with. We can approach everything as if it is prayer, but if we don’t know we have the ability to do that, we’re not going to do that. I think that prayer helps us deepen our relationship to things. I think this is the reason prayer is a factor in mental health– not religion, but spirituality in particular is a strong protective factor. So if we’re then aware of all the times in which we can practice prayer, that can only lead to a better life. I think so many things can be approached with prayer, which is part of what draws me to these so-called low texts, like comic books, which are not low texts at all, but would not otherwise be brought up in traditional religious circumstances. If we’re modeling the ability to do prayer in those circumstances and in very traditional circumstances, we’re showing ourselves and each other that prayer exists in all the spaces between. The body is one of those places, because the body exists in the high and low places as well. One way to think about approaching the body is to be with it, in sex, for example, or death, or loss, and think about how that special attention can guide us to and guide us through moments of wonder. 

FWR: Not knowing the shape of the piece or pieces you’re working on about breath, I think of the attention there to the minutia or what feels like a mundane aspect of the body. It feels so simple, and yet if we were to stop, suddenly we have a big problem!

ET: Yeah– or if someone stops us from doing it. We take it for granted that it’s always here, but it’s here for you and me, but not for Black people, all the time. I love how much attention poets give to the body, in the here and the now, but I also want to give us the ability to think of the body beyond the physical body, as well. The body will fail us at some point; that’s written into its DNA, it’s not meant to be here forever, but how can we still give attention to the body when it is not here? Breath as well– it’s something but also inherently nothing. 

FWR: Right, it goes back to what you were saying about the bowl, being the absence and the presence of something. 

ET: And then what is the human body if not a bowl for air?

FWR: Or a bowl for memory, for experience…

ET: Right, and that’s the idea of mindfulness in mental health. Things will come, things will go. You experience them as they fill the bowl. It’s ok to be sad as they leave the bowl, and the bowl can be filled again. 

FWR: I think this connects back to the idea of teaching grief. The emotions you are feeling in that moment may not last or may be tempered, and experiencing new emotions or developing new relationships does not mean that those previous ones have vanished, only that new relationships or feelings are coming in and adding to that space within us. 

ET: Right, it’s a kind of object permanence that we’re always learning. This reminds me of what we were saying earlier about schools being open, and that they will probably close again. Will we look at that moment as a disaster, or will we look at that time together as something it’s now time to move on from as we approach a new situation and appreciate that situation for what it is, at that time.

FWR: There’s a connection that’s at the edges of my brain between what you’re saying and the fight for racial justice that is making its way through the country. So much of it is connected through video or social media records, and yet these are resulting in real actions that are being manipulated again through videos, which then inspire other actions. It’s connections across distance, space and time. 

ET: Inherently in that is change. The injustice that is here right now is not the injustice that is here to stay. 

FWR: And yet it goes back to what you said about entropy, that things will want to revert back to that old world. So how do we make a new world in the shell of the old?

ET: Absolutely, and I think that is the idea of being present. Being present doesn’t mean being inactive, it means living in this moment and evaluating what you can do in this moment. What in this present moment is doing anything at all. It’s that narrative leap we were talking about. Leaps are uncomfortable. If I don’t understand how a line can go into the next line, I can be delighted, but I can also be a little bit offended. 

FWR: It’s that act of trust again, to believe that there is something on the other side of that gutter or narrative leap. 

ET: That’s the job of the artist, to say I’m building the next breath for you, or the next content for you. Isn’t that an act of justice? To say that I guarantee my fellow human being has another breath, whether that be in racial justice or in terms of coronavirus? Why do we create art if it is not a self-perpetuating action?

That’s the job of the artist, to say I’m building the next breath for you, or the next content for you. Isn’t that an act of justice?

FWR: Are there artists or writers who are doing this work, or serving as guideposts for you?

ET: I feel like I am perpetually in debt to Ocean Vuong: he blurbed this book, he tries to bring up a multiplicity of artists, and he also picked my chapbook Revisions for Sibling Rivalry Press. And then I catch things he says off hand, like he was saying why people wear slippers in their houses is not to keep the outside world from coming in, but to show respect to someone’s stuff. He was saying that the reason he speaks so quietly is because he wants his voice to wear slippers in the world. I feel like that has influenced me a lot.  More actively, Danez Smith, who is organizing in their local community and has raised something like 40 or 50 thousand dollars to do racial justice work in that area. 

FWR: I see both of those writers in your work, especially as I think both are poets who are so interested in exploring and preserving a sense of self; each has a willingness to put oneself at the forefront of one’s writing. 

ET: Yes, and a lack of apology, which I think is probably the most important thing. I think many artists, and I include myself in this category, can tend towards emulation. But emulation alone, I think, can serve as a sort of apology for yourself. I think a lot of us have imposter syndrome. It’s been interesting that some of the poems people have gravitated to have been poems I’ve never submitted for publication, because they felt too something– too something that I wanted to hide, or sneak into the manuscript. And yet those are the ones that people have brought up. The book is very personal, and for people to feel reason to talk about any piece of the work, but those in particular, has been very moving for me. 

FWR: Is there one of those poems in particular that jumps out to you?

ET: A friend of mine experienced one of the first big losses of his life, and he sent me a photo of the poem “Closure”, which is a poem that I, I don’t think like is the word. I remember writing it and feeling like it was right for me, but it’s also very simple to me. I wish he was not feeling that loss or that suffering, and yet when that suffering happens, I feel both obligated to and happy to provide a tool with which to approach that tragedy. 

FWR: Looking at the poem, it has so much we’ve talked about: the push-pull between absence and appearance– the airless kite, the mud prints– that threads so beautifully through the poem, even as the poem is also about moving forward and carrying griefs and memories forward. It’s a beautiful poem. I’m not surprised, but I’m glad that people are responding to your work and finding solace. 

ET: As a debut full-length author, it feels like too much to expect such a personal response to the poems. We love accolades, or for someone to say something nice on Twitter, and those things feel lovely, but then once that moment is over, you go back to your everyday life. So, when someone reaches out, perhaps someone who maybe is not even a poet, to say that your book resonated with them, that, personally, is the most gratifying moment. That’s what poetry does– it reaches individual people, not just big swaths of culture. It seems strange because on one hand, those moments are not prestigious and on the other, they feel too valuable to reach. It’s very humbling.     

FWR: I can’t imagine how having your debut come out against the backdrop of the coronavirus, how that might impact those feelings even further. 

ET: Yes– initially I mourned the loss of a book tour and yet what has happened in response with my book, and thus my life, has been a rededication to racial justice. All the readings I’ve done online have been in some way related to that. A bunch of Western North Carolina writers and I hosted a fundraiser, where we used our books and our editing skills to raise money for organizations benefiting Black people. And isn’t that what I would want anyway? Can I imagine a better use for my art than benefiting the world in this way? So in that way, not thinking that ‘Oh, I don’t get to celebrate my book’, because I am. My art is existing in the space exactly where I hoped it would have. But in the previous models, pre-corona, that wouldn’t have seemed like a possibility to me. With this new world we’re creating, with our radical imagination, it is possible. Everything we do happens within a context. Our bodies, and beyond our bodies. Our breath, and our breath leaving us to intermingle with the larger world.