The magnitude and quality of grief: In conversation with April Naoko Heck
April Naoko Heck’s A Nuclear Family travels from the nuclear blast of Hiroshima to the life of its speaker in America decades later, but in spite of the distance in both space and time between the events, they never feel unconnected. Through images, Heck reminds us of the utter chaos of war in the most domestic of environments – a gas stove creates an explosion that is reminiscent in its own way of the atomic bomb. Though horror presents itself as an omnipresent force, tenderness and awareness are also passed down from generation to generation of the speaker’s titular family.
Late Night Interview contributor Amanda McConnon sat down with April in her office at NYU’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House to discuss how she approached representing such a complicated lineage in a book of poems.
AMANDA MCCONNON: Your book is full of amazing familial anecdotes that you’ve probably been holding in your memory for a very long time. What served as the impetus to put them into poems? How did you start that process?
APRIL HECK: Unremarkably, I started writing poetry seriously in a college workshop. My father died suddenly the winter of my freshman year, and writing about him was a way to cope, confront, grieve, memorialize. The teacher of that workshop told me he had also lost his father and written poems about him, which gave me permission and validation to write about my family. I didn’t or couldn’t write in depth about my mother’s side of the family–my great grandfather’s role and ritual suicide in the Pacific War, my great-grandmother’s survival of Hiroshima–for another dozen years. And you are right, I’d held these stories in mind my whole life, held them at a great distance because, on a subconscious level, they were incomprehensible, maybe intolerable.
In graduate school in my 30s, I wrote a poem about my great-grandmother, and my thesis advisor, Liz Arnold, encouraged me to keep writing about her. Liz was my only female creative writing professor during nine years of higher education; I just realized that that made a difference, that her mentorship gave me permission and a feeling of safety I needed to write my book.
AM: How did you find your entry into each poem? What would you write down first?
AH: I can’t remember the first lines without looking at original drafts: what I remember more clearly is the thrill of writing toward a central image, the one that gives the poem its gravity or drive. In the opening poem for example, that image is of sewing needles that have melted together in the bomb’s blast and been rendered “eyeless.”
In the second poem, my great-grandmother uses a bit of soft sticky rice to glue together the note that calls for volunteers to work in Hiroshima on August 6, the morning of the bombing. In one of the untitled poems that begins “Then my mother told me,” there is a skull right out of the crematorium that is crushed for medicinal powder.
AM: It seems like a lot of these objects are ones that you were told about through family stories. A moment I loved was in “Fall Retreat” when a household accident results in you burning yourself, which makes you recall the flash from the bomb your great-grandmother endured. What was it like to write about specific events that you experienced second hand through stories? How did you approach making them your own?
AH: It’s admittedly hard to write about incidents that I feel distant from, and I’m always reminded I’m writing about my great-grandmother, not grandmother, so a lot of distance in terms of time and geography separate us. When I was immersed in writing these poems, events like the one you mention—getting flash burns when a gas stove explodes—resonated with the past. That experience was traumatic, I went to the hospital not for burns but for a panic attack, but months later I realized in strange a way I was fortunate to have a first-hand experience that helped me relate to the tiniest sliver of my great-grandmother’s experience.
AM: Another the part of the book that deals with your father, your life together, and his death, accesses a tender side of the voice that isn’t as present throughout the rest of the book. How was writing about this subject matter different than writing the poems about Japan?
AH: Thank you for noticing that. I think the difference is in the magnitude and quality of grief I feel over these losses. I didn’t know my great-grandmother except through stories, so I don’t feel the same kind of tenderness toward her as I feel toward my father. That emotional distance is helpful in being able to control language. I often feel I don’t have enough control when I’m writing about my father because the grief is so much closer to the surface. I think tenderness is probably both an asset and a liability in poems: you need just the right amount to court but not indulge in sentimentality.
AM: In the untitled poem after “The Bells” you write about your great-grandmother describing the blast from the atomic bomb by saying “’Kira, kira,’ she said, ‘Twinkle, twinkle.’” Not only did you have to toe the line of sentimentality, but also worry about making atrocities too beautiful. How did you approach your subject matter with this responsibility in mind?
AH: This is a great question because it gets to the heart of how powerful and essential, and yet problematic, poetry of witness can be. Some people will argue that making atrocity that is beyond language somehow consumable, digestible through art, actually makes it all the more possible for atrocity to reoccur.
I can see that the poem includes beautiful language, but I think the primary drive and essence of the poem is really about the heartbreaking innocence of her phrasing, the way she must have told the story to herself. I think that may be the vocabulary she had, the language that was true to her personality and experience: to her, the bomb falling actually twinkled. And I trust readers to “get” that the poem is more about her unreplicable experience than about beautifying language for poetic effect.
AM: With the subject matter at hand, it would have been easy to shock your readers with melodrama. What do you think the value is in approaching these events with lyricism rather than stark drama?
AH: Well, maybe this question is about style or strategy, which most poets probably are unconscious of in the writing process. I’ve always had a transparent writing style and been drawn to language that is classically beautiful, rather than, say, experimental or dissonant. People have commented on the calm surface of some of my writing that deals with great drama or horror. I think the hope is to transform history into something that gives readers multiple layers of experience—the experience of poetic language as well as the experience of receiving new knowledge, hearing an untold story.
COMMENTS ABOUT THE COVER IMAGES:
APRIL: The family seated on the couch was Bianca’s first drawing, and I really loved it. The editors found it too spooky and perhaps too literal, and in fact I was surprised and disheartened by their quick rejection. I had been familiar with Bianca’s style and her first illustration was what I expected (without really knowing what to expect).
In the second round, she offered four options, and we chose the final, figurative image unanimously. I think Bianca was brilliant to depict people falling through the sky, when the bomb was what fell. Her work to me shows strong intuition and a mix of whimsy and sadness that is really touching.
April Naoko Heck was born in Tokyo and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was seven. A Kundiman Fellow, she has been awarded residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in “Asian American Literary Review,” “Shenandoah,” “Kartika,” and “The Collagist,” among other journals, and her nonfiction has been published in “The Rumpus,” “Poets & Writers,” and Cleveland’s “Plain Dealer”. “A Nuclear Family,” her first collection of poems, was released by UpSet Press in spring 2014.
Bianca Stone (Cover illustrations) Heavily influenced by a family of writers and artists, including the late poet Ruth Stone, Bianca Stone began writing poems at a very early age. She collaborated with the poet and essayist Anne Carson on Antigonick, published by New Directions in 2012. She lives in New York City.
Amanda McConnon holds an MFA from NYU. Her poetry has appeared in Columbia, BOXCAR Poetry Review, and others. Favorite books include Bluets, Stag’s Leap, and Life on Mars.