Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Travis Lau

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

The Bone Setter

Travis Lau

Travis currently resides in Austin and regularly flies to Atlanta to see his family. Outside of his academic work, he enjoys writing poetry, discovering local food, and traveling. He has a rescued grey tabby named (Freddie) Mercury. He has been practicing taiko drumming since 2008 and has played with San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Atlanta Taiko Project, and Philadelphia’s Kyo Daiko.

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

In all honesty, I only began writing poetry in my early 20s when I became increasingly exhausted with prose fiction, which I had spent most of my middle and high school days writing. I had been obsessed with high fantasy as a long-time gamer and fiction seemed to be the best place to tell my own stories. But when I arrived in Los Angeles for my undergraduate studies, I found myself more unmoored than I had ever felt in my life. Learning about and coming to terms with my identities—sometimes intersecting, sometimes in tension—involved a great feeling of fracture. Loose, free-verse poems, particularly lyrical fragments, felt like the right form to capture my own sense of dissolution and to begin writing my way toward a new sense of self as it was coming into being. My scoliosis-related disability also began to worsen rapidly around this time, and poetry was not so much a solace as it was a mode of description—of witnessing with intense detail the strange experience of being embodied. If my conditions were chronic and my spinal curvature uncurable (or at great cost), I could better understand them on their own terms and in their own time.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I never really grew up reading poetry, but I attribute a lot of my appreciation of what poetry can do to a few unexpected yet formative influences.
My late paternal grandfather (whom I never met) was a polymath—a lawyer by trade but also an English teacher and apothecary—and used to hold a weekly writing group for his friends. Rather than a workshop, this group was structured like a contest: a weekly theme would be selected and each writer would produce a shih (詩) poem, an older Chinese form that involved 5- and 7- character lines with strict tonal limitations. Over the years, my grandfather collected his handwritten poems into a bound volume, which I later discovered in my teens. With my broken Chinese, I still can’t fully appreciate these poems but they represent to me a form of kinship with my grandfather even though we never had the opportunity to meet.

I am particularly thankful to one of my undergraduate mentors, Aaron Gorelik, who first introduced me to LGBTQ poetry in my first year at UCLA. Reading Paul Monette and Timothy Liu, alongside Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Frank O’Hara, became some of my first intimate encounters with queer history and the AIDS era. I was drawn to the unique gravity of these sickbed and erotic poems, their affective and political force born out of a difficult grappling with the pleasures and limits of the body. I realized I wanted to write the flesh, my own flesh, in this way: tender, honest, and vulnerable.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Because of my limited childhood exposure and my rejection from poetry workshops during college, I never received formal training in poetry beyond the literary studies classroom. With my major’s requirements overwhelming skewed toward canonical white male writers, I think I understood the “dominating presence of older poets” more as the weight of the canon as a deeply political set of choices surrounding what gets to be called literature and what gets to be read and studied. As I try to make up for lost time now by reading the work of older poets to educate myself about the craft, I’ve felt less and less the anxiety of influence but more the possibility of reclaiming and revisiting the supposed territory of older poets—their forms, their approaches, their metaphors. Poetic tradition is an inheritance, and while that inheritance may be deeply problematic as a result of canonicity, I try to think about what we’ve been given and what can be done with and even beyond convention. Also, I think it is equally mistaken to think that movements toward inclusion and diversity within poetry itself have eliminated the problem of certain voices being privileged over others. I’ve tried to think of my own poetic method as one of conversation rather than supersession or outdoing.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

As someone with chronic pain and brain fog, I’ve struggled for years to develop a sustainable writing practice. During graduate school, I turned to mentors and guidebooks for advice, but as many disability scholars have shown, much of the strategies revolve around time management. In graduate school, I also learned about the concept of crip time, which Margaret Price, Alison Kafer, and Ellen Samuels have variously described as a non-normative relationship to linear time, which in the academy, tends toward hyperproductivity. Forcing myself to keep up with the “publish or perish” model was extremely detrimental to my health, and I think even notions of “daily writing routine” can fall into similar traps of ableist expectations that all bodyminds can be trained to comply with timelines that may be harmful to them. While it is often impossible to refuse the demands and deadlines of teaching, research, and service, I’ve also tried to redefine for myself what constitutes “writing” and “productivity” beyond simply word counts or publications, which we are constantly encouraged (especially by social media) to see as the only measures of success. I “write” daily in various forms: informal conversations with students, peers, and friends; reading and annotating sources or related research; sketching out mindmaps and outlines; revisiting and revising old material; collaborating with colleagues. If writing is an accretive process, these are all contributions to that process that ultimately become the final work.

5. What motivates you to write?

In our turbulent political climate, I’ve found a great urgency for poets to write back to power and write for our communities that feel increasingly under threat. I am always surprised to hear some poets describe their work as “apolitical” or outside of politics when the very act itself and the conditions that shape that writing are political. If we are currently what people have described as a “golden age of poetry,” I think it is because voices we haven’t heard are coming to the fore and rewriting narratives we think we know about ourselves, our nation, our future. I’m also extremely grateful to be among the many disabled writers (much love to the #criplit community) who are finally being published and who are being taken seriously for their interventions and innovations in a field still in many ways resistant to taking disability seriously as an identity and an experience.

6. What is your work ethic?

Growing up in an immigrant household made me self-sufficient and driven at a really young age. This helped me succeed in a highly competitive academic environment where I went to school and also made me unafraid of working hard for the things I wanted for myself and my future. But I quickly realized I was becoming a workaholic because of the momentum it created: there was always another thing to pursue, to prepare for, to reach for. I believed for the longest time that to be satisfied with where I was, to stop for any reason would be to become complacent. This would become one of the most toxic and dangerous ideologies that I subscribed to in my early 20s. By keeping myself so busy, I didn’t grapple with the real emotional, physical, and mental costs of maintaining this pace that seemed less and less like it was set by me. I started to feel like I was on everyone else’s time but my own, and when my bodymind finally began to refuse, I realized this was no longer sustainable. I was working against myself, working to avoid having to confront the seismic changes happening to my self-image and my self-worth. I define work ethic quite simply now: it should never be at the expense of your wellbeing.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction, enabled me to find home when I otherwise didn’t feel like I had one. Having lived abroad most of my childhood, I wanted a place to anchor myself, but because I frequently had to pack up my things and say goodbye to friends almost every year, I found comfort in heroes who made something of their journeys. These characters taught me that home is never a place; rather, it is a complex set of feelings that you can put fold up and put away in your back pocket. These novels also showed me the power of the speculative—that we can imagine better or different futures for ourselves, that these imagined futures can tell us about the limits of our present. If anything, I saw that conditions could change, people could change, worlds could change.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

As someone arriving late to poetry, I’m discovering so many living poets who have empowered me to embrace my own limited knowledge, to write from my embodied lived experience as a disabled, queer, person of color. I cannot even begin to list the writers who have impacted my work, but a few that I return to consistently are Rafael Campo and Carl Phillips (both taught me how to write about desire and the body), Chen Chen and Jane Hirshfield (both taught me how to write about the quotidian, the joyful), as well as Alexander Chee and Jordy Rosenberg (both taught me how poetic prose can be). All of them taught me how to be generous, how to imagine boldly.

I am also deeply grateful to fellow writers who have taken a chance on my work like Caseyrenée Lopez, Raymond Luczak, Chael Needle, Jay Besemer, Kristina Darling, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Brighde Moffat, Denise Nichole Andrews, Jill Khoury, Jim Ferris, and Nadia Gerassimenko. Also, my co-writer and colleague, Jason Farr, who taught me the incredible joy and potential of collaboration.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

As a scholar, teacher, and mentor to students, I simply don’t see my writing as separate from these related endeavors of community building and pedagogy. If writing is not just communication but the means by which we exchange ideas, it already feels misguided to see it as an independent act. For a time, I tried to cordon off my poetic practice as a safe space untouched by the other facets of my life. This was brought on by my exhaustion and frustration with the argumentative mood of literary criticism—always about overturning old ideas, forcefully arguing new ones, and performing the role of a disembodied and detached critic. But as I’ve come to understand my own investments and the way other poets have used their work toward larger, more collective aims, I realized that it was actually harming my work not to allow questions I was already asking in my scholarship and teaching to take new forms in my poetry. Poetry offers a unique space for me to speculate and for that speculation to be itself a viable and valuable act. Instead of necessarily having a coherent and clear answer to everything, I can practice living with uncertainty, with gestures toward possibilities that may not yet exist or may not feel real to me yet.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

This is already cliché and predictable, but I think it is as simple as calling yourself one. Having been in the academy, I’ve seen how work becomes powerfully intertwined with identity. The idea that you are your work has a powerful effect in creating the illusion that true writers are those who embody fully the work that they produce and are bound to it as an extension of who they are. This may be true, but I also know some writers have stopped writing because they were told they weren’t capable of it or that they didn’t deserve to do it. I’ve also seen writers become so wrapped up in trying to “be a writer” or at least convey the image of a successful writer that it has inhibited them from doing the work they want to do or worse made them do work that they are uninvested in or even antithetical to who they are. That’s not to say you must write what you know or write what you are in every situation. I mean here that the question should not be turned outward. Instead of asking how someone else becomes a writer, it is far more valuable to ask yourself what you yourself need and want as a writer. And that may involve having more questions than answers, but I think that’s where writing comes in: you write your way towards them.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

In terms of academic scholarship, I am currently working on a book-length study of the British literary and cultural history of vaccination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries entitled Insecure Immunity: Inoculation and Anti-Vaccination in Britain, 1720-1898. I have a tentative second project called A Cripistemology of Pain, which turns to eighteenth- and nineteenth- century literary and philosophical engagements with pain to think about new models of care and interdependency that might intervene in our current opioid crisis.

I am currently trying to find homes for two chapbook manuscripts while working on poems for a third. The first chapbook, Vagaries, is a poetic response to Elaine Scarry’s 1985 The Body in Pain, which famously made the claim that pain destroys language. Building upon my first chaplet, The Bone Setter (Damaged Goods Press, 2019), which focuses on my chiropractic treatment for my scoliosis-related disability, I ask whether or not pain has a form and how pain itself is a language rather than antithetical to it. The second, Parings, is a return to my earlier interests in queer lyric and poems of intimacy. The newest project is actually one of my oldest that I am returning to after many years. Listening to Incense explores how depression shaped and continues to shape my family, particularly the lives of the men.

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