Poets in Conversation: Huan He

How did the poem “Union Pacific” come into being? Tell us a little about the origin, inspiration, or circumstances surrounding it.

The poem “Union Pacific” is an important poem to me as a queer Chinese American. It was the seed of my current work-in-progress manuscript about queerness and Asian American identity, refracted through the metaphor and material history of the “train.” I spent my high school years in North Platte, Nebraska, which is the home to the largest railyard in the world, Bailey Yards. The town took pride in how this small, flyover place connected so much of the nation. Of course, railroads themselves contain an invisible Asian American history of labor, as the railroads were largely built by Chinese workers and through indigenous dispossession. One can look to the famous “Golden Spike” ceremony photograph, which marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad. It features only white entrepreneurs and railroad men, while no Chinese people are in sight. This type of historical erasure is not surprising. “Union Pacific” attempts to speculate on these deep histories as not only about race or labor, but also about queerness and sexuality. Railroad corporations cheaply hired many Chinese laborers (to the growing dissatisfaction of an emerging white working-class consciousness) and inadvertently created homosocial communities of workers—of men with men united by the demands of labor and capital. “Union Pacific” explores my own sexual coming of age in Nebraska by speculating on the layered histories of the railroad workers that came before me.

Do you feel poetry has a role to play during this global pandemic? How have you experienced writing and reading (or not!) during this time?

I returned to writing poetry during the global pandemic. I had not written poetry in a sustained way since my undergraduate years exploring creative writing at Dartmouth College in 2013. Since then, I had been busy working and eventually entered a PhD program in American Studies at the University of Southern California, where I focused on literary and cultural criticism. Writing a dissertation has been rewarding, even if the writing process can be dull at times. During the pandemic, I was thirsty for a new mode of writing to rekindle my love for the craft, and I revisited my old poems and made space to write new ones. I was surprised at how much poured out of me, and I became somewhat obsessed with playing with my poems. I am particularly interested in formal experimentation and finding ways to refract meaning through form. 

How do you determine the form or shape for your poems? 

For me, form is often a way to intuit a relationship between multiple meanings, scales, and histories. “Union Pacific” began with a scene in my head: a railroad worker surveying the land before returning to the repetitive rhythms of manual labor. This idea translated into the monostiches that stretch across the area of the blank page. The poem can be read left to right but can also be read top to bottom. I wanted the words to transform the page itself into an act of surveying, in which the lines also produce the standardization of area measurement. However, surveying, in another context, can also invoke a queer act, a gazing between men. Overall, the monostiches produce a sense of standardized rhythm, with each stanza ideally read in a single breath. It is, then, this breath that connects both the exhausting scene of labor and a lustful scene of desire.

Is there a book or a writer you return to again and again who sustains you? 

My engagement with formal experimentation has been deeply influenced by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, the first Asian diasporic poetry collection I read in college. I return to this book often. Perhaps its most generous offering was its assertion that “Our destination is fixed on the perpetual motion of search. Fixed in perpetual exile.” This suggestion guided the cartography of my poetic expression and my relationship to the blank page. Rather than striving for the perfect words to capture my experiences, I relish in the “perpetual motion of search”—the video buffering of language, the glitch of the imperfect memory, the dimming flashlight in a rainstorm—in finding, erasing, and finding words again. To savor the “search” re-oriented my relationship to the perfectionism I developed as a queer immigrant son and, in many ways, made me feel the most hopeful when writing. 

Tell us about a non-poetry passion, obsession or delight.

Poetry allows me to “slow” down my mind, especially in my approach to writing. However, I am also obsessed with fast-paced activities, most notably competitive video games. I regularly play first-person shooters such as Apex Legends and Overwatch and am a fan of professional Esports. I’ve been a gaymer for most of my life, and it’s a thrill (I also have recently begun studying games as a cultural critic). If anyone reading happens to also be a gamer with similar interests, my gamer tag on Steam and Xbox is ConstanceUwU.

This interview refers to the following work previously published in Beloit Poetry Journal:

Union Pacific

From
Vol. 71 No. 2
(
2021
)
, p
61