Cupping a Tornado: An Interview with Brian Komei Dempster

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Brian Komei Dempster’s poem “Truce” came to TriQuarterly’s submission inbox during a regular submission period. It was the type of poem that grew with every reading, packing an emotional wallop from its very first, carefully chosen words, to ensure it a place in Issue 155 and a nomination for Best of the Net. After the publication of “Truce,” I sought out a copy of Dempster’s first book Topaz and eagerly awaited his second book, Seize (Four Way Books, 2020).

A line can be drawn directly from Topaz to Seize. Dempster—who teaches rhetoric and language, is a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San Francisco, and serves as the Director of Administration for the Master of Arts in Asia Pacific Studies—devotes much of his poetry to multiple generations of his family, from his grandparents to his son. Though much is shared between the two books, Seize, as a sequel of sorts to Topaz, embodies a sense of patience and maturity that further elevates its subject matter.

Dempster graciously agreed to spend a few weeks answering my questions through a messaging app, which helped create a dynamic exchange and gave us time to contemplate each other’s words. Our conversation took place from late October to mid-November, spanning the tumultuous 2020 election and a new surge in COVID-19 numbers across the United States.

TQ: Let me start by saying that this collection absolutely crushed me. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking. I became a father earlier this year and so the theme of fatherhood that runs throughout this book really spoke to me. Tell me, how did you, as a poet, approach such a complicated, intense, and deeply meaningful topic?

BKD: When my son, Brendan, was first born, I dreamed him into many roles, envisioned who he might become: a star athlete, wordsmith, astronaut. Our relationship was predetermined. I, the good father, would teach him to drive; to throw a ball. From me, he’d learn how to drink a beer; how to get good grades and still have fun; how to act with girls or anyone else.

Perhaps because I was so invested in these expectations, I initially denied what I sensed—that my son wasn’t normal. One day, as I swung a wood block back and forth in front of his face, and saw that his eyes were not tracking it, a heightening anxiety arose; something was wrong. Shortly after, my fears were confirmed, and those set expectations of him were shattered. During a winter storm, as rain poured onto our roof, down our windows, my eyes glistening with tears, I asked my wife, Grace, “Is he going to be okay?” “What will happen with him?” My son was not who I thought he was, and our journey would not be typical.

The gap between the expectations and realities of fatherhood created internal dissonance. Poetry gave me a way to work through this. As a poet, I found the best way to approach fatherhood was to be honest, to articulate my full spectrum of emotion and thought. To not craft a poetic speaker who was a one-dimensional, morally upright protagonist, but a complex, multidimensional character with strengths and flaws. This meant admitting my shame and guilt surrounding my son’s condition, the nagging feeling that I had done something wrong. This meant admitting my impatience toward him when I was fatigued. This meant seeing my resentment for what it was—not his blemish, but my inability to accept who he really was. This meant admitting my subconscious beliefs about masculinity and how they restricted my vision of my son.

At the same time, I wanted the poems to bring out Brendan’s transformative power. My boy was the great leveler of perspective. He taught me to stop feeling sorry for myself. For how could I pity myself when my son fought so hard? When a seizure hit, and he dropped, he would brace his hand against the floor, wobbling as he slowly stood up. Moments before neurosurgery, when he lay there in his hospital gown, the quiet peace in his face calmed me. Unknowingly, he challenged me to find reserves of courage I didn’t know were there. He taught me gratitude. When a sound from his mouth came out shaped like a word, it was nectar to my ear. When he could walk steady, circled like a bird around our living room table, I clapped for him like he had just won a race. Small things to others were big victories for us.

As I wrote about my own quest, I reflected back to childhood and my father, Stuart, a renowned trombonist and professor, a man of tremendous spiritual balance, humility and sensitivity. How had my perspective of the world been shaped by my father? How could I pass on his lessons to my nonverbal son? And what lessons would I never be able to? Father-son relationships are threaded throughout the book. We see fathers, like mine, who care for and protect their families yet possess receptivity and creativity, my father’s music a healing force on my own son. We see fathers haunted by war, who utter slurs and lash out and teach their sons tough, brutal lessons. I am just one of these many fathers—or any father for that matter. Together, we create a vibrant and complicated portrait.

TQ: This isn’t the first time your readers have read poems about Brendan. He appears in poems from your first book, Topaz. However, in that book you didn’t dive as deeply into the specific challenges of fatherhood as compared to Seize, as the purpose of Topaz seemed mainly to be to explore your family’s history. What made you feel like you were ready for this subject in your new book or did it simply take that long to bridge that gap and come those admissions that you just spoke of?

BKD: That’s an astute observation. Topaz, as you point out, reckons with the legacy passed down to me: the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans, including my maternal family, during World War II. The book relates the stories I knew and the stories too painful to speak; the fragments of a past that my mother barely remembers and the gaps and silences in our family narrative; it brings various characters to light and their psychological responses to these traumatic events. It is an elegy to the uncles and grandparents I have lost and an homage to those, like my mother, her one living brother, and her two sisters, who carry the torch for the next generation.

Writing Topaz was a stepping-stone for Seize. I needed to excavate our wartime saga and walk through the ruins of the past before I could fully open the door into the present. What did it mean to be a mixed-race Sansei whose own mother had been incarcerated as a baby? What did it mean to grow up knowing nothing of this history and why did no one speak of it until I asked? What did it mean to know this story now—and how could my writing give voice to the pain and turmoil of my ancestors, their love and resilience?

Diving into this sea of collective trauma allowed me to reach other shores—the difficult terrain where I came to terms with the special needs of my son, Brendan. Born in 2005, he arrived on this earth while I was still fully immersed in the writing and revision of Topaz, which took over fifteen years to complete. His presence in Topaz marks my transition into fatherhood, and he is woven into this ancestral tapestry. Yet, about a year after his birth, a whole new set of poems emerged. These poems were born less out of artistic impulse and more from deep personal necessity. These poems were different than anything I had written before, part of some other world. Their tone was often urgent and intense, their approach unflinching and direct. At times, they struck chords of tenderness and yearning. They were unmediated, uncensored. The speaker’s voice honest, raw, immediate. Their admissions left me feeling exposed. These poems searched for answers I didn’t have about my son, articulated turbulent emotions about him that needed to be processed. They tried to help me make sense of what it really was to be a father. They confronted hard truths and unveiled my boy’s unique beauty.

Writing Seize was like cupping a tornado inside my hands. The challenge was to let this whirlwind of energy swirl while harnessing it into a steady flow; to find the best words and lines, precise images and metaphors, that expressed the profound impact of Brendan’s neurological storm, the storms that brewed in us; to balance those storms with currents of intimacy, open skies of gratitude and calm.

The poems in Seize chose me, whether I was ready or not. Some of the poems punched me in the gut; some soothed me like mantras. The poems forced me to confront my sometimes-conflicting thoughts and impulsive reactions, paving the way to better myself. The book was terrifying and enlightening and healing to write.

TQ: It’s fascinating to hear you speak about writing your first book and how during that long process, Brendan came into your lives. As you said, writing Topaz prepared you for Seize. Even the word “seize” as a title choice references not only Brendan’s seizures but also alludes to your family’s history and the Japanese American concentration camps during World War II. This forced eviction from their homes and detention in inhospitable locations behind fences under the watch of armed guards is a type of seizure—not only a seizure of freedom but a halting pause within their lives.

Between your two books, I particularly noticed the language of warfare figuring into many of the poems. In Topaz, given its historical context, the reasons for this are obvious. In Seize, this language is used to describe the challenges you face as a parent and the aftermath of difficult moments in your parenting. Can you elaborate on these word choices and why this thread continues to be so strongly woven into your work?

BKD: The insightful connections you make here are affirming. As you point out, the multiple meanings of the word “seize” underscore why that ultimately became the book’s title. Seize provides an umbrella concept that helped me narrow down which poems were relevant to the thematic arc.

Your observations about language—and the thread of war that runs through both books—are spot on. In Topaz, this diction is inevitable, as war and its consequences—harassment, xenophobia, seizure of assets, illegal incarceration, separation of families for years, and intentional decimation of the Japanese American community—were a tangible, violent reality for my ancestors; indeed, “military necessity” was used as a rationale to justify the governmental policy that led to the imprisonment of my mother, her family, and more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom were legal citizens of the United States. As the writing of Seize progressed, I arrived at a discovery: the concept of war allowed me to connect time frames, braid together narrative strands. “Seized” is one such example. Through an onslaught of staccato phrases, my son’s seizure by the misfiring in his brain and my mother’s seizure as an infant by the FBI and American government, converge and echo. “Truce”—which I was honored to have selected by you for TriQuarterly—shows the speaker-father engaged in an internal war, a daily struggle to understand his son; his boy’s wordlessness is linked to his mother’s difficulties as she attempts to retrieve and articulate the blurry past—and resonates with the silence of those who did not want to speak of it.

A quality I admire in poems is the imaginative juxtaposition of objects and images in order to create unexpected resonances. By utilizing this approach, the poet helps us see things anew. Throughout Seize, war—and its associative web of images and words—transforms the historical into the personal. War provides a clarifying lens. It illuminates the father-son relationship, highlights domestic, familial, and marital realms. The deserts and storms of the past glow inside the homes and lives of the present. The speaker’s wartime inheritance becomes inextricable from how he views the world now.

It’s sad and shocking to realize that these issues from the past continue to surface, issues that are urgent and that we grapple with daily. For me and other poets, war is a touchstone. War brings us to the power of Dickinson’s loaded gun, Whitman’s phrase, “I contain multitudes.” It helps us recognize the tensions within us, our divided, competing selves. It helps us to perceive the rifts between groups and stress in relationships. Going through adversity can underscore our connection. With that said, we all suffer from the fallout of war. War is a cycle. We, as poets, name what we see, bear witness. We play a part in breaking that painful cycle by amplifying the collective memory and the lives we live every day.

TQ: There are several interesting points in your last answer that bring to mind specific poems or sets of poems in Seize. But first, if I may, since you mentioned “Truce,” I’d like to ask a question that’s tangential to TriQuarterly’s acquisition of that poem. I really love “Truce”; it accomplishes so many of the aims of the book and it remains one of my favorites from the collection.

However, one poem that really stood out to me in Seize and continues to reverberate is “Brendan’s Orange.” I thought this poem seemed familiar, so I went back to your submission to TriQuarterly and saw that you had submitted an earlier draft of “Brendan’s Orange” that was written from Brendan’s perspective. The published version is fairly different and exhibits many of the qualities that I see in the other poems throughout the book. Can you speak about the editorial process that went into this poem (and perhaps others in the book) and why you felt that the original POV ultimately didn’t work?

BKD: It’s fascinating to get your take on these artistic decisions—and I am relieved and delighted to hear that the final version of “Brendan’s Orange” impacted you in this way. In truth, and as evidenced by the earlier version you saw, it took me a long time to figure out what worked best. When I first tried writing from Brendan’s point of view, I fell in love with the idea. For one, it was exciting and natural in this poem—and a handful of others—to shape his perspective. Entering his persona allowed me to imagine what it may have been like for him to experience a particular event and the world in general. I wanted to give my nonverbal son a voice and, on a subconscious level, to allay my anxieties that I was appropriating certain things that only he could authenticate. Also, I worried that relying too much on the father-speaker’s perspective could make the book monotonous; I thought that point-of-view shifts could provide texture and variation for the reader.

While in retrospect, I see this gesture was made with good intentions, my perspective began to change when I received a thoughtful editorial review from Rusty Morrison; she pointed out that this set of poems gave her pause. She questioned how authentic these poems sounded when my son didn’t possess language. Her questions led to my own: if my son didn’t have words, how else could he articulate himself? And even if he could understand some of the things we told him, what was his own mode of expression? Did he ever think in words, fragments of our language? What was his language? “He speaks Brendan,” I remember one of his teachers telling us.

When Martha Rhodes, my stellar editor at Four Way Books, echoed the same concerns as Rusty, I further realized these poems were not quite ringing true and required too much suspension of disbelief from the audience. Ironically, in my hopes of avoiding appropriation, I had perhaps overstepped subtle boundaries by constructing Brendan’s view through my personal, poetic filter, which could only take me so far. I reexamined “Brendan’s Orange” and other such poems—“Brendan’s Key,” “Brendan’s Twitter,” and “Hai”—changing his voice into second or third-person narration. As I experimented with these shifts, a new energy emerged. Once I revised them, I turned to my longtime friend and editing partner, Anastasia Royal, whose trusted eye and ear I could count on. As I read passages out loud to Stasia, I could sense their power. Revision also involved nuanced changes in diction and phrasing.

In the end, because these particular poems were originally written from his first-person point of view, I still think we get a strong sense of Brendan, who remains at their center. Moreover, I do have other poems in the manuscript that quote his unique sounds, imagine his voice in italics, and reflect on transcendent instances when he spoke words, or we thought we heard him do so. It was difficult getting there, but I am satisfied with the final result.

TQ: We were talking about how intrinsic the diction of war is to your books. You said that war is a cycle. It seems that idea can also apply to violence in general as well as racism, both of which you explore, often hand in hand with war, in your collections. From Seize, I’m thinking of “Jap” and “Target Practice” as two poems that speak to the generational cycles of war, violence, and racism, using the experiences of two men from World War II and Vietnam, respectively, and these men’s effect on your childhood memories. What’s interesting is that your parents also figure into these poems.

In “Jap,” it seems that your father tries to tactfully rebuke a neighbor: “It cut through my father’s nervous smile, Hey buddy, / just don’t say it…” In “Target Practice,” I’m particularly intrigued with the approach you took to writing about a memory from when you played baseball as a child—the cruelty displayed by a friend’s father who served as the team coach. We might now identify his actions as toxic masculinity and, in some respects, PTSD. Here, your parents seem to excuse the coach’s actions: “The war broke // his mind my parents said, // ‘Nam growing less distant / each time you were the target.” Do you feel that these poems acknowledge that the reluctance or failure to truly address these cycles of war, violence, and racism is also generational?

BKD: I appreciate you making these parallels between poems and characters. My book does intend to illustrate war’s cyclical nature through multiple points of view. These particular pieces illustrate the perspective of those who have served in the military; as such, they provide a counterpoint to my maternal family’s wartime incarceration. In my aesthetic as a poet, I value complexity. Throughout Seize, I attempt to provide the reader with a holistic picture of war as both a historical occurrence and ongoing phenomenon.

In turn, the characters’ reactions reflect this complexity. The main speaker is a firsthand childhood observer to the devastating effects of PTSD. In “Jap,” the utterance of this slur is a jumping-off point into a meditation on Mr. Foster’s violent tendencies and his perception of the speaker’s mother as the Other—her face the reminder of an enemy embedded in his traumatic memories. “Target Practice” relates the coach’s use of a military-type exercise on a baseball field that reinforces values of toxic masculinity, as you rightly call it. The boys are encouraged to be tough, to be ruthless, to be unfeeling as they hurl baseballs at one of their teammates, who sits in catcher’s gear, trying to act tough himself.

Your perceptive interpretations got me to thinking—what does this all this represent for each character? It was important for me to draw a three-dimensional portrait of Mr. F. While he exhibits racism and violence, his kindness and generosity are shown through various gestures: bringing tomatoes over to the mother at the house; giving the father advice on how to grow his own tomatoes. And while the slur jap floats through the air of the poem, it is not explicitly stated whether Mr. F ever directs this slur directly at the father’s wife, which would, of course, provoke a stronger reaction. In light of this, the father’s reactions tread a delicate middle ground. Rather than choosing the complicity of silence or a more aggressive stance, the father delivers the rebuke you mention.

Knowing who my father is, I imagine he’d think that a more forceful response would not produce the desired result. This firm yet measured approach is true to who my father is: a grounded, calm person. The reaction seems situational and proximal, too; since Mr. F is a neighbor whose gun is within hand’s reach, my father was surely thinking about a way to call him out but not escalate the tension. Some relevant subtext: I was brought up in a household where education and spirituality were valued—my mother was raised as a Buddhist and was a teacher and school administrator. My father was brought up as a Unitarian and often expresses himself through Buddhist principles. While we were taught to stand up for ourselves and defend our beliefs, dialogue and nonviolence were taught to my brother, Loren, and me as the ways of doing so.

Your take on “Target Practice” provoked my own thinking as well. I do see how the parents’ reaction can sound like an excusal of such behavior. Yet, when I wrote the poem, in my mind it was ambiguous how much the parents really knew about the coach’s actions. Did the speaker tell his parents the whole story? Did the speaker tell his parents about just some of the incident? Did he just ask his parents about the coach in passing? Whether or not this ambiguity is effective is up for each reader to decide. Depending on one’s take, we might perceive the parents as rationalizing the coach’s behavior, expressing compassion for what he went through, attempting to educate their son, or a combination of such things.

And yes, these poems do demonstrate that our response to war is generational. To be sure, my parents grew up in another time. When they got married, in the early 1960s, interracial marriages were frowned upon; it took my father’s parents some time to accept their union, partly due to continuing perception of the Japanese as enemy after World War II and how that view became problematically conflated with cultural perceptions of Japanese Americans. Nowadays, thankfully, such marriages like theirs are becoming more of the norm. The actions of Mr. F and the baseball coach, which sadly were not uncommon occurrences during my childhood, would be perceived differently today by most. These expressions of prejudice and toxic masculinity could get them in serious trouble. Which is all to say: historical context is crucial to our understanding of people and characters, of poems and stories, of life and art.

And yes, I do agree that these poems point to the incessant cycle of war. But precisely because war is a cycle that we keep repeating, I would not put the failure to stop this cycle on any particular person or generation. A more comprehensive model of war and its consequences is needed. Real solutions are only possible when we dig into the root causes of conflict, tend to the hurt and pain from all sides of war.

TQ: Much like “Target Practice,” the third poem in Seize, titled “A Boy,” is framed by another childhood memory. In this memory, there are no adults to explain the cruelty—it’s simply cruelty enacted by a group of boys against another boy who doesn’t fit in with that group. The poem alternates between this memory and moments shared between you and Brendan. These are moments of both frustration (“Old words foam inside / me, held back”) and tenderness, as you help him under the running water of a shower. But there is also a sense of protectiveness, as you speak up regarding a callous medical report on Brendan (“Four years ago, I told the doctor, / my voice measured, Be careful // with those words”). This reminds me of your father’s protective approach in “Jap.” Ultimately the poem ends with your son displaying a moment of independence, standing up for himself, quite literally, in his own way. Can you elaborate on this poem and the sense that it seems to be trying to reconcile past actions with the present, perhaps trying to break those generational cycles we were speaking of?

BKD: Your reading gets at the heart of what I was striving for in “A Boy.” The initial draft of this piece poured out of me, and the juxtapositions between scenes and characters happened spontaneously. But once I came down from the high of this cathartic outburst, I found on all levels—aesthetic, emotional, spiritual—that this was the most difficult poem in Seize to get just right.

One challenge was to honor the speaker’s honesty (for in this piece, he makes some of his most candid admissions) but, at the same time, to make sure the motivations behind his actions and nature of his impulses, whether conscious or not, were fleshed out. To do so, it took time. I had to step back from the original driving catalysts for the poem—anger and frustration, shame and regret—in order to see all the possibilities. The piece became more interesting as I revised towards complexity and created a clearer narrative arc. As “A Boy” evolved, the scene was infused with the father’s expressions of care and tenderness towards his child. The father became more reflective of the pain caused by his past actions, which resurface in this intense moment, water running over them as he tries to lift up his son.

As you say, the poem attempts to reconcile the past and present, to break certain cycles. In particular, the father contends with the restrictive paradigm of masculinity, the damaging impact of our gender role socialization. The poem confronts what it means to be a man. What is expected. How that contains us. Narrows our vision of who we are. In turn, we confine our sons into their own boxes. When a boy has special needs, the tension is amplified. As a father who played college tennis, grew up as an athlete, how do I raise a son who sometimes finds it hard to walk, let alone to stand up? As a father who grew up at times buying into the myth that a boy must be strong, that a real man shouldn’t show weakness, how do I accept the physical limitations of my son, his inability to help me raise him off the shower floor?

We can break the cycle by turning towards language. You point out that in certain passages the father examines his language and that of others; these are critical to our understanding of the poem and the progression of his character. The father’s careful attention to words becomes a vehicle to understand his regretful childhood actions towards another boy—with the implication that this regret fuels his critique of the doctor’s words. There is also an undercurrent to the speaker’s reaction here. Due to the harm he has caused by picking on a boy when he was a boy himself, the father must face a sad reality: his own son could become a victim to such taunts in the future.

Gaining clarity in his mind, the father moves towards acceptance. This is signified by the gestures towards the end of the poem. The speaker admits the need for new, empowering words that embody the character of his boy. The speaker recognizes the strength and bravery of his boy in a simple yet weighted act: his fierce attempt to stand up.

TQ: Rain—falling from the sky, slicking roads, drumming rooftops—figures into many of the poems in Seize. Rainstorms tie into the lightning imagery that symbolizes the epileptic electrical activity of a brain. But rain as water droplets differs from that turbulent imagery, seeming gentler like the shower in “A Boy.” Interestingly, we also see rain in Topaz, although in that book it’s much less expected, given the arid desert location of the concentration camp that’s the topic of many poems in it. Specifically, in Topaz, the sense of rain in the poem “Migration” stood out to me: “Prayer is the flower in rain, its drops falling / on the roof of this church // where Grace fills a plastic tub warm for Brendan.” That poem seems to bridge to poems like “Truce” (“Rain on tin”) and “Tunnel Visions” (“Rain sheathing // tires”) in Seize. How do you see the representation of rain in your poems?

BKD: Before you asked me this question, I had not thought much about these recurrences or realized how much rain appears in Topaz and Seize. Why does it figure so much in my work? Maybe it’s because I grew up in the lush green landscape of Seattle, where skies are gray and it rains all the time. Maybe it’s because rain connects me to my Buddhist upbringing and ancestry. When I was a child, my grandfather, Ojichan, taught me the five elements of the universe, counting them on his fingers—chi (earth), sui (water), ka (fire), fu (air), and ku (space)—with water keeping fire in balance, nourishing and cleansing the body and earth. Maybe it’s because the rhythmic sound of rain lives in my bones, brings me back to the soothing drone of his chant, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, that swirled into jasmine incense burning at the altar of his church home.

Whatever the reasons, rain is there. Without too much thought or intention, it flows through my work. In some poems, the words are light rain, the rhythm gentle and steady. In others, the tone is a forceful deluge, the anger torrential. Rain falls and falls. Through repeated images and sounds, we build resonances between events, characters, and themes.

Rain takes us back decades, creates the mood, incessant or intermittent, an accompaniment to my ancestors’ plight. It seeps through the roof of a barrack where my grandfather thinks of his wife and children, locked up in a desert miles away from him. A blustery lullaby against flimsy walls.

Rain falls through space and time, into the present. In some poems, rain marks our most intense moments with Brendan. The day Grace and I found out Brendan was not normal, I remember our windshield misted. The morning we drove him to the hospital for his neurosurgery, the road was slick as I steadied the car. Through stanzas of rain, emotions and histories juxtapose. We sadden yet grow close. Cold drops pour from a rusted nozzle, and my baby mother shivers while her mother holds her in muddy horse stalls of Tanforan. As I kneel to my young son, he sprawls in a shower, struggles to get up.

Rain is atmospheric—the anticipation of it builds tension, and even a misting of precipitation casts a spectral quality on the scene. Our ancestors appear in vague outline, trying to be seen and heard. Rain also allows room for emotional and poetic contrast—between suffering and peace, turbulence and calm. Passages with storms are balanced by passages when the electric sky subsides. We feel the relief of clearing. Clouds dissolve. Behind barbed wire, my grandfather watches a hawk rising above mesas. The bursts inside my son’s brain turn to flickers, and he can see and hear us clearly again. As a flood fills the street, rain lapping against our house, Grace tells Brendan we just want him to have a happy life. The miracle of his first sentence, “I Am,” washes over us. Rain is. We are.

Excerpts from “Jap,” “Target Practice,” “A Boy,” “Truce,” and “Tunnel Visions” from Seize © 2020 and “Migration” from Topaz © 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.