Kim Gek Lin Short - A verse novel (?) about Patsy Clone/La La, a girl kidnapped from Hong Kong and abused by Ren/Bill, a pedophiliac Clint Eastwood who schizophrenically frames his abuse as art
Kim Gek Lin Short, China Cowboy, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2012.
"In the technicolor timewarp called Hell, Hong Kong, wannabe cowgirl La La is hellbent on realizing her dream to be a folk-singing sensation, even if it means surviving a dysfunctional relationship with her kidnapper, Ren, who is just hellbent. Ren thinks he’ll win, but La La, dead or alive, always wins."
“Moving between the explicit descriptions of the Marquis de Sade and the implicit ironies of Nabokov, these pieces are excruciatingly compelling, so infernal as they are related in languages variously pornographic and desperately, radically tender. Short’s brilliant tragicomedy can be read as a metaphor for China’s dynamic with American culture or the story of any determined enterprising youth whose eager “bloody head” under a bumbling tyrant’s “boot is bent.” A bold, imaginative, timely work from a courageous and complex thinker..—HEIDI LYNN STAPLES
Heated & heartbreaking, China Cowboy charms like wedding cans, flesh-filled, on tarmac. This car (perhaps an old, long Cadillac with longhorns glaring & charred) contains a man, Ren: a “family man” or “something commensurate.” La-La: our heroine. & the driver, guiding us expertly over the bluegrass, bodies & Time Warps of Hell, child abuse, power & Country Music is Kim Gek Lin Short.—RAUAN KLASSNIK
China Cowboy is more hydra than hybrid, a slim monster sprouting new directions for form, narrative, culture, and identity. Meanwhile, everything it bites comes to vicious, gorgeous life.—CHRISTIAN TEBORDO
La La is a myth-making myth. What we learn from her is that we all are. Born in Hong Kong to a family of thieves, she survives by giving herself fully to her religion—Americana. Her saints: Loretta Lynn and Clint Eastwood. Even after being kidnapped and brutally tortured by one of her family’s victims—ironically a farmer from Missouri named Ren—she asks herself, “what would Patsy Cline do?” The answer: “she’d belt every song in that / scratchy face.” Composed primarily of prose blocks that miraculously retain the surprise of linebreaks, this fragmented narrative chronicles their dreams, delusions, and horrific physical lives. La La and Ren are as searing as any characters I’ve encountered—Henry and Mr. Bones, Lolita and Humbert Humbert, Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill, etc.—and we share with them the reality that something must be imagined in order to keep going. Mired in what he is doing to La La, even Ren can comfort himself: “I grasp myself with my arms and say it is / almost too much to contain, this happiness.” La La can only respond by yelling “into her microphone: ‘Shut up, Lao Ren! I caint hear / myself sing!’”—CHRIS TONELLI
I read China Cowboy under the most perfect of circumstances: in a garden a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean, perched on the Ring of Fire that fuses San Francisco to Hong Kong. The voices of Chinese daytime television descended from my neighbor’s second floor window onto the pages of the safety-yellow book, which had arrived via USPS in a rough condition apropos of its protagonist. Like the abused and well-traveled La La of Kim Gek Lin Short’s second full-length collection, the bubble mailer was practically clawed open, the book so scuffed that its soft outer layer was worn to the quick, almost see-through.
The ocean echoed the book’s evocative opening line: “A bluegrass of fogging.” And the last place I’d been before here was Nashville, where any nobody can twang out a couple tunes at an open mic and even the weak-stomached can’t turn down a shot of 35-year-old well whiskey from a commemorative porcelain decanter in the shape of Elvis’ head, forged on the occasion of his majesty’s death in 1977 -- also the year of La La’s birth (“Y’all, I would’ve been out of your league at 12. I’m only tattlin’ now, cause I would’ve been 20 today,” she boasts from an eternally-pubescent afterlife hellishly specified as 1997).
It’s with such brash spunkiness that La La -- a poor kid in Hong Kong with aspirations of American country singer celebrity -- tells the story of her brief life and violent death, including the glamour she imagines for herself, the many small deaths along the way and her songwriting star that keeps ascending from beyond the grave.
A ring of hellfire encompasses La La from the moment of her birth, when the devil himself (“a white dark man”) wraps a searing-hot hand around the breech fetus’ calf and delivers her into the harsh world of Kowloon, 1977. La La’s parents make their living “taking the tourists to an alley stabbing them stealing their stuff,” and the child is used as a prop to gain victims’ trust. Early on, to cover up the odd claw-shaped birthmark on La La’s leg, her mother dresses her in “cowboy boots tube socks,” and Patsy Clone is born: La La’s country star alter ego, her ticket to America, where children “have their own rooms.”
Unfortunately, one of her family’s victims is an American ex-con/soybean farmer/child abductor who sticks around Hong Kong following the assault, and one day La La never comes home from school. Maybe Ren, a.k.a. Bill, a.k.a. William O’Rennessey, is really the devil incarnate, or maybe he’s just one of the devil’s many agents on a confused, globalized earth circa 1989. He is certainly an updated (and actually American) Humbert Humbert whose version of the coveted nymphet is called a “la la” (with a lower-case L). China Cowboy’s heroine is just one of many la las in the world, an unlucky abductee who’s bribable by sugary cereal, plastic microphones and flouncy skirts. And Ren is a man who will do anything the voices tell him -- assuming aliases, squirreling away la las in remote corners of the country, wrestling with his own delusions of grandeur and multiple personalities. In China Cowboy, “Hell is red carpeted stairs lined with plastic runners smell of wicked shit” -- a particularly cheap and Americanized evil. Ren “goes all the way inside,” and La La never comes out -- smuggled through the port of San Francisco, sequestered in a shoddy Missouri cabin, serially raped and, finally, poisoned.
If this all sounds too hideous to be enjoyable, I must point out that Short infuses the story with kitsch, humor and addictively playful language that balance out the heartbreak. The dark subject matter is made lighter by La La’s protective pantheon of American deities: “Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls,” Clint Eastwood, Woody Guthrie. She complains: “In my sleep I am starring in Coal Miner’s Daughter. I am as convincing as Sissy Spacek except I am Chinese and just can’t help it. I can’t.”
An expanded version of Short’s chapbook Run (Rope-a-Dope, 2010), China Cowboy is a poetically-executed novella largely taking the form of prose poems, although other textual structures creep in toward the end of the book -- including spacious, lineated blocks that stand in for visual artworks created by Ren’s artist doppelganger, and rhyming country song lyrics in “La La’s Guthriecrucian Songbook: A Bildungsroman.”
In Short’s often singsongy prosody, the blunt physicality of child rape and the simplicity of kid-speech melds with the ethereal and the eternal: “He tapes toilet roll to broken mouth retainer to hard semen-gauzy sock, it goes in my crotch,” but La La promises “in my new life I will be white heat, pure I will rise.” This is the language of dissociation, of self-immolation: “I will be swept ash, light I will rise.”
In the piece entitled “Run,” we see La La’s self-aware side, the part of her that suspects her “country superstar humility” won’t save her:
In my dream I am running. I turn around and look behind me there is the cabin and below it dug ground, a place where my death could be. Duck down, Butterfly. But it is only me. I’ll dig her a hole too. Which little box do you want, I ask, we have two of this one left and I shake the coffin like it’s cereal the kind I won’t eat. But I cannot answer. I am looking at myself running. There is something blue coiled around my ankles. It is my panties. I fall.
La La’s is a disembodied (yet entirely, painfully bodied) voice traveling across decades and continents, transgressing mortality to speak. She is a ghost inhabiting the dreams of her captor, her parents and herself. She sees herself dead, changed, transparent, famous, pregnant, American, flat-faced, blonde, in fugue, at a mic, triumphant. In an account of her final moments to her mother -- one of the most difficult passages to read -- La La notes that
Up to the last it didn’t hurt. There was a lifting in his descent my body caved. I didn’t cry. The sting the sweat. My skin rippled the song skipped[…][I need you to know what happened to me]. I just wanted to do something. Mother. I never got to do anything.
The Lovely Bones this ain’t. China Cowboy is a satanically intricate narrative with seemingly infinite vantage points in space, time and sympathy. After all, Ren isn’t always evil and he’s not never the victim, as Short admits in her acknowledgments: “Boots up... to all the cowgirls and cowboys who sparked what’s good about these characters and to all the angels and devils who ignited what’s badder.” It is an account of trauma and the stories people tell themselves to survive, in the larger context of cultural tensions between China and America: “When I picture home Ren doesn’t picture the same place. If I could do-over anything I would make Ren picture the same place.”
An incredibly original conceit that is so thoughtfully constructed, with so much attention to detail and such a range of source material -- from Dante to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- the book must be reread to catch all of Short’s utterly un-snarky cleverness. She’s a master at making her strange little pieces glow brighter under the perfect titles, which locate them in the complex web of personal myth and symbology that Ren and La La spin around one another: “Butcher Holler,” “This Bean is Your Bean,” “Repulse Bay,” “Cow Loon.” As China Cowboy progresses, its interior space deepens: a network of dreams, self-delusions and mini-universes reveals itself through Nabokovian footnotes, appendices, crime reports, fake nonprofits (Cowboys Against Child Abuse), press releases for suspicious art galleries that just gush “front.” But for what?
With this and all of her projects, Short has expanded and fused the poetic and narrative fields, creating a zone where elegance and grace can gambol with the just-plain-fucked-up. The book is disquieting, seductive, a preteen pathological liar busking on a deserted corner with an invisible guitar. Is it awful to suggest we can all take a cue from the La La school of stress reduction?: “I want to scream. But I don’t. I ask myself // what would Patsy Cline do?” - Sarah Heady
Just like the book’s protagonist, La La, who “...wears all her clothes. Her boots. All three skirts. All the shirts. The panties, many of them...” China Cowboy by Kim Gek Lin Short is an expertly woven story told in tangled layers.
It is the story of an abduction or escape, a brutal love affair or abusive imprisonment, rise to fame or road to perdition, art installation or songbook retrospective. It is each of these things in turn or neither depending on the narrator in charge at any given moment.
Told in turn from the perspectives of each of the book’s primary characters (La La and Ren), China Cowboy is a successfully executed experiment in prosody that simultaneously braids and frays narrative timelines and expectations, bringing the reader to the brink of every sensory extreme and back again. The result is a darkly surreal adventure in perception that leaves one’s nerves exposed and moral fortitude shaken to their respective foundations.
As a note in the lower right hand corner of both the back cover and the title page indicates, “China Cowboy is Told in Technicolor.” In retrospect, this is perhaps a content warning of sorts for a book publishing industry still as yet (blessedly) unregulated by any sort of parental advisory ratings agency.
On the other hand, to use the euphemism of a bygone era and call the language of this book “colorful” would be both a dangerous understatement and a grave disservice to the unrelentingly aggressive, continuously shifting, sexually charged and poetically crafted syntaxes that Kim Gek Lin Short stitches together with apparent ease.
Take the following lines from “American Ball” by way of example:
“It is not a ball. It is a rubber doll, but only part of her. The ass and pussy part. I decide I do not want the flashlight anymore I turn it off. I want my ball back. I lie on the ball but it is not the same. I want to scream. But I don’t.”
Faced with hundreds of provocatively conflicted passages such as this, one does not “read” the pages of China Cowboy so much as one is confronted by them and left to weigh the visceral experiences they both depict/imprint in the mind’s eye and evoke/carve within the physical body.
Which is to say: When you pick up this book (and you should) be prepared to hold both your brightest hopes for humanity and darkest emotional expectations in a precarious balance. By the time you put it down again, the scales of your psyche will never be quite the same. -Travis Macdonald
Kim’s book is provocative, wrenching, and accomplishes that oh so rare feat of both giving me pause and making me want to rush into the next page, of wanting to savor the language while the content leaves my skin crawling. But instead of writing a review thinking about the intersection of these things in this verse novel (?) about Patsy Clone/La La, a girl kidnapped from Hong Kong and abused by Ren/Bill, a pedophiliac Clint Eastwood who schizophrenically frames his abuse as art, I decided to just record one of the song-poems as a song. There’s something about poets writing songs that makes me immediately want to discover how it would sound out loud. There’s also something about the world of this book and the world of the language of this book that seems expansive enough to want to enter and linger. It’s the same kind of thing that inspires fan fiction. Which this basically is. This one goes out to La La from No #1 fanboy:
September1987 Age 10
I didn’t say it was good. Just that the book is infectious. Watch out. - Joe Hall
In Kim Gek Lin Short’s latest book, China Cowboy, available online or on order from your favorite local booksellers, Hong Kong is a technicolor timewarp. Cowgirl at heart La La is driven by her dream to be a folk-singing sensation, even if it costs her an abusive relationship with her kidnapper, Ren, equally driven by his own bad demons. Ren is certain of victory, but La La, dead or alive, always wins. The form is anything but standard. Parts of China Cowboy read like poetry, But, says Short, “I find it impossible to assign any static definition to prose poetry, too.” China Cowboy will be having a Book Launch in Denver with readings by Bruce Covey, Kim Gek Lin Short, and others. The book launch will be organized by Bad Shadow Affair‘s Sommer Browning & Counterpath‘s Tim Roberts & Julie Carr. It will take place on July 1st, 2012, 6PM at Counterpath (Press + Bookstore + Gallery + Performance), 613 22nd Street, Denver, CO
Says Hedi Lynn Staples, author of Dog Girl, "Moving between the explicit descriptions of the Marquis de Sade and the implicit ironies of Nabokov, these pieces are excruciatingly compelling, so infernal as they are related in languages variously pornographic and desperately, radically tender. “ Holy Land author Rauan Klassnik agrees. “Heated and heartbreaking, China Cowboy charms like wedding cans, flesh-filled, on tarmac.” Mr. Klassnik was a visiting author at this reviewer's alma mater, Vermont College, and Ms. Short and I share several acquaintances from the same place.
Kim Gek Lin Short is also the author of The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2010) and the chapbooks Run (Rope-a-Dope) and The Residents (dancing girl press). China Cowboy is her second full-length collection. She lived in Denver some years ago and the book China Cowboy takes its title from the name of a Chinese restaurant that used to be (is it still?) on East Colfax in Denver. - Zack Kopp
At the most rudimentary level, Kim Gek Lin Short's China Cowboy (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2012) tells the story of a depraved relationship between La La and Ren, with Short building her nonlinear narrative through a series of fragmented prose poems that alternate between the years 1989 and 1997. The story's premise focuses on Ren, an American from Missouri, who kidnaps La La, a twelve year old Chinese girl from Hong Kong, and sexually assaults her over the course of eight years.
But outside of the obvious themes of sexual abuse and criminal behavior, China Cowboy offers an interesting exploration of identity formation in an era of global capitalism. In one of the first prose blocks, the collection's narrator informs readers that “La La always wanted to be a cowgirl” (5), a desire fueled by a childhood set to the soundtrack of American country music:
La La liked to listen to music music all day she played her records. Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls. La La never asked for anything but one day she asked for a guitar. Her mother was hanging laundry out the kitchen window. Her mother blared COWGIRLS DON'T HAVE FLAT FACES gave her daughter a clothespin. La La put it on her nose. Wore it to school. Wore it to bed. Did not take it off even dyeing her hair. (5)
La La idolizes Lynn, Cline, and Harris, but her mother chides both this infatuation and request for a guitar as ridiculous due to her “FLAT FACE.” According to La La's mother, physical appearance dictates identity and, therefore, is to a great extent immutable. Undaunted, La La wears a closespin on her nose, risking pain and public humiliation in order to change her facial features and realize her dream of becoming a American cowgirl singer.
But it's not just her facial features that La La seeks to alter. The narrator also mentions how, when she was “five or six,” La La sang “in her corner of the bigger room practicing losing her accent” (49). It would appear that her presistence pays off; in the prose poem “Fist City,” the La La of 1997 has successfully transformed her vocal patterns:
Y'all, where I come from there are no maps to it, and what y'all don't know I trick it up. I had experience before I even met Ren, and some of it weren't girls...Ya'll, I would've been out of your league at 12. I'm only tattlin' now. (17)
Employing the Southern-inflected “y'all” and “tattlin,” La La not only loses her accent, but tailors her new voice to a particular region of the United States in order to sound more like a cowgirl. Of course, by erasing a past and replacing it with one that never existed, La La must now admit that “where I come from there are no maps to it.”
Just because La La can't map where she comes from, though, doesn't mean she can't imagine an origin. While living in captivity, La La:
hears synthesized theme music from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and sometimes sees Clint Eastwood poncho-ed and posing in the doorframe of the bathroom...From the look on Clint's face she know they are thinking the same thing. She thinks, it is like they are the same person. She thinks, it is like he is my blood father. (46)
In La La's imagination, Clint Eastwood's character Blondie from the 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,literally, becomes her biological father. On the one hand, the construction of an originary tale based upon a movie starring an American celebrity, no doubt, speaks to the all-consuming nature of American entertainment and its hegemonic grip on global culture; on the other hand, Sergio Leone, an Italian director, filmed the movie in Spain primarily using European and Mexican actors. The American-self La La constructs, in fact, is a transnational product from the beginning: a European facsimile of an American Wild West that, itself, never existed: imagination layered in imagination covering a forgotten past.
La La, eventually, questions the authenticity of Patsy Cline and the American life she imagined. Before her kidnapping, she thinks:
When I get to America I will have my own room children in American have their own rooms. It will have a lock on the door like when I'm famous and have curled hair. When I get to America I can be anything I can be Patsy Cline I have her wrists. (18)
After Ren kidnaps her, though, her dream of a private room with a lock, fame, and curled hair vanishes. La La can only wonder at “why the white devil wants to hump so much” (13). First-hand experience allows her to see through the smoke, mirrors, and movie sets of the American Dream, revealing instead a “white devil” who “humps so much” and leaves her covered in “semen loose warm stream dewlap my hair saltwhite smeared” (28). In this depraved confusion, La La turns to song in order to question how that dream and her imagined American identity managed to fail her: “Why can't Batman play the guitar? / … / Why can't Elvis fly a spaceship” (101)? - Joshua Ware
Excerpts: Yellow Notice
Did I go? The little girl looks at the warped photograph of herself in the toilet on the Star Ferry surveys the short hair she cut herself the image smear-dosed the girl in one word bold MISSING. Ren likes what she was wearing that day her hair that day her smile that day that day she was looking ripe fine, he says so with his eyes. Did I go? She asks Ren she can’t remember there is yellow in the toilet (miscellaneous) was it there before? The paper is wadded in her hand. It’s wet. She wipes the wall the flyer the girl qua girl: (I am here). Ren parts her dirty bottom, the girl qua girl, what’s it gonna take? She says so with her eyes: I am here.
Have You Seen Me? The mother picks a passport picture of La La thinks it looks most like her last. Cases aren’t handled the same if she can remember is La La eleven or twelve? “Twelve,” she guesses. After the report is made the school vouchers stop. But
there are things she knows: La La got on the bus. La La got to school. La La brought her boots her bag sagged heavy.
There are things she thinks: La La stood at the top of the stairs after school. La La had the sun in her eyes. La La couldn’t see the man at the bottom of the steps the man a stranger.
There are true things: La La put on her boots (thought of his boots). La La squeezed his fingers hair drenched his knuckles (thought of rambutans). La La saw the man La La liked the man (thought of Clint Eastwood).
Have You Seen Me? it asks everywhere the mother can ask it.
It is a time when the mother touches her with affection. Always at a time when the world is against them. For this reason La La loves when the world is against them. When worldless they crouch on the kitchen floor of the flat and angle La La’s ear at the length of light the window.
It is an art. The earfile tracing the pinna then the sting of peppermint swabbing the lobe. Then the earspoon, La La’s favorite. La La knows the earspoon’s not jewelry but it is the nicest jewelry they own: twenty-two carat soft Chinese gold passed-down not stolen.
The mother wipes the earspoon with oil then inserts slowly, sticking dry wax to the spoon scooping it up tapping it onto the floor where La La faces it. La La loves to face it. The puny loose pearly clumps even eggs if she breathes hard enough they hatch.
The first clump is always the most special. She can identify it even after six more clumps crowd it on the floor. She cannot identify the second or third clumps only ever the first and the last. The first is never made ordinary and the last is always contrary. It is like this with Ren, she thinks.
When the mother tells her to switch sides La La’s head-shifting shuffles shells of wax stubborn in her ear. The sound of mah-jongg tiles on cereal. A hatching sound. A sound of starting and also of finishing. La La has a way of snapping her ear down hard in an effort to evict to end true.
The next ear is the same as the first but with less flinching. In this way it is ten times as enjoyable. By the time the earspoon scoops the last egg of wax onto the floor the peppermint oil’s used-up and the spoon doesn’t glide.
La La eyes the clump.
Unlike the first this last one has control. It doesn’t struggle to hold its shape like the first it’s dangerous it begins to roll almost immediately. La La knows this one must be kept close. La La knows this one must be kept from running.
Clint hands her the clump. She puts it back in her ear.
It is like this with Ren, she thinks.
Who saw? The rest looses a hole. The mother feeds it as if to say, this is it, this is a mouth her mìng to speak it now my yùn. This is when it begins. The rest is scooped away sacred heap La La’s red plastic pail the rest so heavy the handle snaps off. As if to say, it begins when letting go. The sound of snapping. If she had a son. A sound not sounding like starting. This is the way she holds the pail now without the handle it is hard to watch La La squints her eyes. As if to say, it’s barely big enough for fucking—this hole—but it begins when fucking anyway. This is how she examines the hole to loose the rest the chance the seized chance stirred traces the rest is a chance of running. What way La La went.
Uncle Daddy sees her mother on Tuesdays during the typhoon off-season. There is a room nine-by-twelve joined by a doorway to another room nine-by-six. They go into the room that is nine-by-six it has a sink in it. When Uncle Daddy leaves he steadies a red money envelope on a corner of the sink. Her mother repeatedly the rest of Tuesday and some of Wednesday cleans the sink. It is a ritual. She carefully cuts a circle of carpet from the rug and wets it soaps it scrubs it. Wets it, scrubs again. She does this until the circle of carpet curdles into yolky crumbles in the sink and then she eats the soapy lumps. If there are too many lumps she makes La La eat some too. La La always thinks of Uncle Daddy when she is at a sink washing up gargling swallowing. The only way she can stand it is she convinces herself those soapy fibers sticking in her throat will make her a better singer. She tells herself voice exercises every Tuesday during the typhoon off-season.
Excerpt at issu
Kim Gek Lin Short, Run, Rope-a-Dope, 2010.
Kim Gek Lin Short’s Run is nothing short of what you always wanted from a cross-genre hybridity of poesy merged with a fatal fable of death/love/sex. I think it’s poetry, but there’s a narrative, so should I just call it new? The new new poetry for the reader that demands a narrative! The closest thing I can think of is Berryman’s Dreamsongs 1-77, where you are either expecting Henry or Mr. Bones to let you in on the story… but they keep you waiting… and not unlike Berryman, there is the aforementioned death/sex, but with Short, and more importantly, the tale of the girl who gets sold? raped?… married? Either way, these poems, also like Berryman, are strung together by lyric, by music.
In my dream I am running. I turn around and look behind
me there is the cabin and below it dug ground, a place where
my death could be.
This is Lala, a post-confessional matriarch of the counter-Asian-once-removed-immigrant-American-Emmylou Harris, whose center is in her boots rather than her body (this is fractured, I know, but bear with me)
I’ll tell the cops how Baba is a philosopher. How he knows
about theoretical things like why I should give the tourists a
price they do not need to pay beforehand. Make sure they put
the bucks somewhere not the suitcase. In a pocket maybe. On
the body. Why I should never tell my mother he told me to
In this beautifully crafted handbound chap, from Rope-a-Dope press, Short lays out the first three sections from her upcoming full length book of poetry China Cowboy (Tarpaulin Sky). The three sections are “ Hell, Hong Kong 1989”, “Fist City, Hong Kong 1997” and “La La Land, Hong Kong 1989”, and while out of order, chronologically, they run thematically from birth, “Ren made the cabin and three la las were put to be. A time of clouding. The roof hit by lightning,” to sexual perversion and loss of innocence, “Ren makes a bargain. He swears to the devil he wants La / La he will do anything… He goes all the way inside.” and later, “Ren is like a bestial organ inside my body that scares me it’s there. No, I say. / / When I can no longer remember my mother I wake up in the middle of the night thirsty and Ren gives me milk. I want water.” To the ambiguous death, which might be thought of as a cultural rebirth, but is La La still alive? – “ After they find La La’s body her mother dreams that she is washing La La’s bloody George V school uniform in a cement sink supported by La La’s legs, boots – on. She is able to get the stains out and she puts the uniform on the line outside the kitchen window to dry. It never dries.”
While sexual deviancy between girl and older man, Lao Ren and La La, provide intrigue, the real struggle here is for La La to acquire identity through American culture. She objectifies her desires through American-female country singers and cereals, and somewhere in between the two, any reader can assemble a remarkably crafted and singular voice for the desire to ‘belong’ to a culture that is not one’s own. I believe the book’s greatest success lie within the unique fabric that create that character – the language that describes it. Particularly nouns – cowboy boots, knives, microphones, cereal, cabins, are all reoccurring, are reified, and build on a wanton (pun?) Butcher Holler / Loretta Lynn mythology that is alien to the character, geographically, but intricately wound in the fabric of the narrative. Lao Ren, too old to be taking on La La, ends up marrying? / sexing her. If you’re lost, see Coal Miner’s Daughter. That’s where the tension occurs, where the real fabric of what makes this book interesting comes from; geography and culture isn’t what makes us interesting as human beings, but the interstices of experience. (our collective tragedy)
Americans masturbate too. The white devil does not understand why La La always wears her right cowboy boot even to bed. He asks her one day. She says she has her reasons. Then she thinks to herself looking at his gray chest hairs bony pelvis… La La sleeps hard so when she is sleeping he takes off her boot tube sock and with a flame in his finger inspects the handprint wrapped around her lower leg. Calculates she must be about twelve years old. - JL at Sonora Review
"I didn't know anything about this chapbook when I picked it up at AWP except that Jeremiah said I should buy it and offered a toy horse to close the deal. He'd come so far as a salesman since we shared a table at the last AWP. But he was right. About the chapbook. About the horse. About everything.
It's easy in the world of letterpressed and hand-sewn chapbooks to get caught up in the beauty of the physical object and let it overshadow the writing inside, but Run would be just as satisfying if it were xeroxed and stapled at Kinko's. It is a beautiful book, of course, but the story told through this series of prose poems is a shocking one of kidnapping and abuse and country music. It can do this:
Hand it over, it says, the knife in her purse. Her mother tells the police she knows where La La is: it is not a better place. She slices the sharp searches for the life the heat the wet they do not see. She slices a gash and sharps over it over it over it. Where is your daughter, they ask, naked with glasses on. They're visual. She can't show them because they're visual.
Yep. It's full of moments like this. Violence and dreams and capture and escape." - Adam Peterson
Kim Gek Lin Short, The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2010.
The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits is the prose elegy of a boy who wants to be a bug in order to save by symbiosis the dead girl he loves. Can Harlan, in “the basement forever inside him,” conjure Toland back from “the scars of Monday”? Enacted in prose poems and cross-referenced datebooks, the inseparable lovers, Harlan and Toland, eternally rehearse for a real life together, repeating in that instant between being and nonbeing, the loss into which their love escaped.
Short’s prose poems have the exactitude of obsessive compulsion, yet the imagery and dimness of an opiate trip sponsored by Lewis Caroll. . . . She frequently stretches the parameters of grammar, rearranging conventional syntax to just off kilter; her written style as surreal as her yarn-and-insect imagery. The result is a terrifying, ungraspable split-level love story: futile, sad and beautiful. - NEW PAGES
A beguiling and entirely enthralling collection of related prose poems . . . so unusual and provocative in its subtle oddities that I wonder how aware she is of what she’s done. . . . It is what you think when you read a story by George Saunders, or see a film by David Lynch, or flip through a comic by R. Crumb: how did this person know he could do this?—ART + CULTURE
A strange romance of “the secret motions of things” (Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, 1627), Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits is an exciting, mysterious, sometimes macabre new narrative. Her zany futuristic gothic opera of prose poems is threaded with magic, potions, passion, a “concert of hair,” a “hazmat of holes.” With its incantations of quantum teleology, its footnotes & sources, it is a magnificent work. Irresistible! —NORMA COLE
A luminous and perverse fairy-tale to be read at the beginning of the day, preferably in that “chilly blue hour before 4 a.m.” Complete with footnotes, diagrams and an “unspeakable private crevice,” these prose “exhibits” display a prebiotic potential. What was “not quite alive,” becomes, in this swift, dark telling, “hot anyway,” “enchantment created inside everything,” and sometimes: “a poem about bugs.” Angels, lab technicians from the suburbs of Denver, men in ratty satin capes and artisans of all kinds populate this stunning and strange narrative, which is not a narrative: it is a “growing hole.” Enacting the desire and curiosity the book prompts, a reader might peer in, fall for a long time, then “miraculously return.” I repeat: do not read this book at night. If you do, I can’t—the book can’t—account for your new dreams. - BHANU KAPIL
This small unsettling book first proposes a stiflingly sweet symbiosis between two shut-in innamorati, and then lets its queer world subdivide in a theater of exfoliating roles. Most shocking in this miniature is the Rosebud at its center, a muse who breaks with her mate only to reinvent him out of bugs, ink and sugarwater. Like a Victorian photo collage mounting, say, the head of Prince Albert on a croquet mallet or umbrella handle, [The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits] both conceals and reveals its morbidity, its twisted thirsts. —JOYELLE MCSWEENEY
I kept thinking: Catacomb Valentine. Sometimes we forget that ancient catacombs were mapped, negotiated—which is to say: read—by the placement of the graves of paupers. The tunnel diggers constellated this grammar so they would know how to navigate and create within lush darkness. The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits, in its way, deeply reminds. The network of tunnels—between lives, between being (blink) and not being (blink)—and all papered with valentines, the sort cut from thick, mealy-colored childhood stock. Here is language as enchantment. - SELAH SATERSTROM
Kim Gek Lin Short, The Residents, Dancing Girl Press, 2008.
from The Residents
ALL THE MASON JARS IN THE WORLD
There once lived like fur forgotten in a basement corner the girl who touched everything. Her body like a ball of yarn unwound and fell from the bed into the basement, from the basement into the drain, and met with many accidents, where it did touch many things. Where it spanned itself the 385 square feet fuzzed and fraying in Harlan’s house, so unwound it could not if Harlan had all the mason jars in the world get Toland back again, no matter how many times with the tailor’s chalk Harlan marked. So much more than a hundred times did this poor Harlan weep, upset. That one day he coined in scientific terms “stem-threads” and obtained a grant, and taped the permit on the basement door, where it stayed for all the colors of a Denver Fall he worked. And in all the mason jars in the world set Harlan to cure his broken Toland, and lined up with labels the things Toland touched. But Toland touched everything, and all the mason jars in the world were not enough. And in the basement forever inside him, Harlan prepared the threads of yarn, wrapping the lesions in rice paper, taking many steps backwards many times, before submitting his Toland to the empty jars forever and ever.
Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits was published by Tarpaulin Sky Press in May 2010. Her chapbook Run was selected for Rope-a-Dope’s 2010 Golden Gloves series. The full-length edition of Run, China Cowboy, is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press next year. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.
In August 2010, she was interviewed over e-mail about by Elizabeth Hildreth. They discuss, among other things, the David Bowie Method, poems who wear cheap prose wigs, establishing a sort of cahoots with the villain, hallucinating Clint Eastwood (musical accompaniment and all), chafing against the words “strange” and “experimental,” and being considered the 2010 poetry It Girl.
Hi Kim! You’re famous. A book and a chapbook in... what? A couple of months? Run by Rope-A-Dope and The Bugging Watch and other Exhibits from Tarpaulin Sky. Congratulations, they’re both beautiful. And so different thematically. I thought maybe I would describe what both books are “about” but maybe I’ll just let you describe them and then I can respond?
- Hey Elizabeth! Yes, Run and The Bugging Watch are pretty different. Although they’re both about the ways we escape (or don’t) and they both use prose poems to trigger stories, the stories they trigger are different. In Run, an adolescent wannabe cowgirl in Hong Kong called La La has a dysfunctional relationship with her kidnapper, an older American called Ren (pronounced “run” and Chinese for “person”). In The Bugging Watch, a Denver teenager called Harlan fantasizes about bugs and his girlfriend, a sort of white-trash angel called Toland (“to-land”). In retrospect, I refer to this reinvention as the David Bowie Method. But at the time I was writing these books -- and they do share a creative trajectory—their sources were indistinguishable to me. For instance, when I was 13 I decided I wanted to be Jim Morrison. I read No One Here Gets Out Alive at least ten times and I tried to make my hair wavy as a bird’s wing. I hoped that maybe I was a female Asian Jim Morrison reincarnation. I began to tell people I hoped this, and my teachers suggested I get into theater. What I mean is, the influence that my Jim Morrison period has on these very different books is, to me, obvious.
I thought you were going to say that your teachers recommend that you get into therapy. Did you? Theater, not therapy.
- Eventually, yes, in high school. I had a few roles and some chorus bits in musicals, but was always primarily interested in the writing, and how the characters, particularly in drama, reveal themselves through contradictions. I love dialogue, and the vulnerability of “speaking,” but probably the best lesson I ever learned in a theater class came from a scene I did in The Miracle Worker that had no dialogue. I was a freshman in high school and it was my first theater class, and I was playing Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. It was a short scene in which the teacher tries to civilize the wild Helen Keller by making her use utensils to eat. Before we performed the scene for the other students, my theater teacher asked me what my character’s “objective” was, and I said something like, “To break Helen’s will by teaching her table manners and showing her who’s boss?” He said that was wrong, it had to be something else entirely, something not in the scene at all. At this point I had rehearsed this very physical struggle-scene a few times, and was hot and thirsty, so I said, “Well maybe Anne Sullivan just wants a glass of water.” And he said, “Yes! That’s it! Play it that way!” Well, basically, this was an epiphany for me: a character’s intentions are not (easily) defined, and sometimes they are not all that lofty. How human. We are all so complicated and outrageous, and it is so thrilling. A somewhat related term for what my teacher termed “objective” is “MacGuffin.” Have you seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps? This is where the term MacGuffin really takes off. It’s just delightfully inexplicable plot pushing, like a suitcase that the audience is dying to open.
I haven’t seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. I also haven’t seen that guy’s film where he digitally removed all the birds from Hitchcock’s The Birds and so the people are desperately screaming and running from nothing. It is on my list. - Rings truthfully doesn’t it, folks running and screaming from nothing? This reminds me of my memory of this scene at the end of the film Zentropa (or Europa). I saw the film when it came out, years and years ago, so who knows if I am remembering this correctly or making it up, but there is a scene towards the end of Zentropa that seems an apt juxtaposition to the Birds Minus Birds film. At the end of Zentropa, the protagonist, an American pacifist/train conductor, flails a gun around the cars screaming something like, I want the things that do not matter to not matter! If only. Yet this is the meaningful stuff that’s often most transformative -- the MacGuffins -- the unknowable stuff that relentlessly rides us.
Something really notable about your work is how, to me at least, it can be defined so neatly as “prose poetry.” I read so many prose poems and I’m struck thinking either a) this is a lyric poem with the line breaks removed, b) this is a one-paragraph short story, c) this is a one-paragraph essay. If someone asked me to define a prose poem, I’m not entirely sure what I’d say, but I would use one of yours as an example. Here’s what I’m talking about from Run, from the poem “Nebulizer”:
Please in my new life I will mend this rubber seal my soul, a swollen rubber place. In my new life I will -- he pulls the nebulizer off my face, a sunk space it stretches. It is so much like hell. I promise. In my new life.
Why does the form appeal to you and do you feel like these poems could have been written in any other form?
- I find it impossible to assign any static definition to prose poetry, too. But, maybe like you, I know a prose poem when I see it. For me, it is not a call best made by weighing a work’s narrative versus lyric elements. And although prose poetry is often discussed in terms of its subversive origin, a primary point of this hybrid is its purposeful distinction from any origin. Sure, there are purists who regard the prose in prose poetry as pejorative, like a poem wearing a cheap prose wig and hollering, look at me! I am a poem without line breaks! I hate white space! But what it comes down to for me, most times, is very simply a feeling: an undeniable poetic underpinning in a work of prose. Like looking at a readymade and wondering, is it a toilet or is it art? I usually find answers to questions like these in my gut not my head.
And yes, absolutely the prose in Run or The Bugging Watch could have been written another way. Maybe someone else could give it a go? I do love a good remake.
I found Run deeply sad and disturbing. In fact I usually read everything I review out loud and at points I could not bring myself to say the words out loud. How was writing this? I read somewhere that the author Heather O’Neill in her book Lullabies for Little Criminals said that in writing certain passages about her 12-year-old protagonist, she felt like she herself was violating her, by leading her into these terrible situations. Here’s a passage from your poem “My Country Superstar Humility”:
When I can no longer sing I use a primitive method of signing in which whatever I point to is prefixed by “fuck” and suffixed by “hurt.” I point to my mouth. He translates, fucking mouth hurts. I point to my crotch. He translates, fucking cunt hurts.
In short, horrific things happen to your poor La La. Was it hard to write? How was the process different from writing The Bugging Watch?
- Heather O’Neill is dead-on, it is like a violation, purposefully putting a character you love, especially a child, into a dangerous and degrading situation. As the writer of this story, I was making an agreement, in a way, to empower a villain, thereby establishing a sort of cahoots. And while I do not believe that artwork that deals with these sorts of shady subjects has to be redemptive, there is an innately redemptive quality to La La -- her innocent steadfast commitment to her dream. I admire this about La La.
Although the process in writing these books was similar, as they are structurally alike, writing Run did feel very different from writing The Bugging Watch because I wasn’t putting my protagonists, Harlan and Toland, into such an intense line of fire.
La La is from Hong Kong but is obsessed with American culture -- particularly country/cowboy culture. Here’s a passage from “Cowgirls Don’t Have Flat Faces”:
Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls.
Her mother blared COWGIRLS DON’T HAVE FLAT FACES gave her daughter a clothespin. La La put it on her nose. Wore it to school. Wore it to bed. Did not take it off even dyeing her hair.
She also likes Fruit Loops and blue bandanas and cowboy boots, Sissy Spacek, and Clint Eastwood. Did you consciously build out the character of La La? Or did she just emerge as you were writing? You mentioned earlier wanting to be the “female Asian Jim Morrison reincarnation.” How much of La La is based on you?
La La is a force of nature. I created her, and she created herself as the writing went on. She is heroic in her dauntlessness, a quality I can only aspire to, but can’t claim to possess. So how much of La La is based on me? I get asked that question more than any other question. Not a helluva lot. Even though I also love Fruit Loops, bandanas, and cowboy boots, only a little bit of La La is actually based on me. As for Clint Eastwood... well, La La and I do share that hallucination: on several difficult days, when I was a kid, I did “see” Clint, musical accompaniment and all.
In Run, La La has disgust for her captor but at the same time, she wants to do things that please him -- e.g., pretend that she doesn’t know he’s going to eventually kill her. The character Harlan in The Bugging Watch also has some strange desires. I know when we talked, you said that someone mentioned that The Bugging Watch was strange, and you were taken aback, and your husband said, “But Kim, it’s about a boy who’s in love with a dead girl.” You obviously don’t perceive your own work as being sad or bizarre -- considering you were surprised by this person’s interpretation. So how do you perceive your own stories?
- I do not often chafe against the word “strange.” In fact, I actually (almost exclusively) like strange things. My problem with the term “strange” is when I suspect it is being used to dismiss a work as inaccessible. Sometimes folks use the term “experimental” to this end, a misuse I also loathe. But I am not so delusional that I do not think my books are sad and bizarre; in fact, in my submission cover letter to Tarpaulin Sky, I described The Bugging Watch as “demented.” So, yes, it is strange to love a dead girl. Or is it? Orpheus, Heathcliff -- maybe it isn’t so strange. All I know is, these things happen: children are abused and people live in denial about the passing of loved ones. There is Stockholm syndrome. There is the torture of unrequited love. And, yes, our strongest desires are sometimes pretty loony.
I mentioned your name to someone a while ago and he said, “I’ve never read her, but she’s kind of the It Girl right now in poetry, isn’t she?” It’s true that you’ve published your first two books in one year. How does that feel?
Really, It Girl? If my name is mentioned among the list of writers I’d place in that category, I am honored, of course; however, being It is transient, and I hope my work -- my characters -- will occupy a more permanent place. The Bugging Watch and Run came out of me at roughly the same time, so I was thrilled when they released as book objects simultaneously, as well.
What are you working on now? Is it a secret or can you tell me?
I am working on a few projects, and final touches on Run’s beefed-up edition, China Cowboy. Right right now, like today, I am working on a collaborative hybrid called UP AGAINST THE VAGINAL WALLS, MOTHERFUCKER! - Interview by Elizabeth Hildreth