Kevin Phan

Interviewed by Elaina Mercatoris

Your poem Fledgling, featured in Subtropics Issue 19, features various warnings and consequences in the form of commands or statements, as shown in the lines, “Do not leave unlocked the front gate. / You will grow cuts.” What inspired the poem and how did you choose this structure to convey it?

Well I was a construction worker at the Odiyan Meditation Center in northern Cali. When I arrived—it’s two hours north of San Francisco off of Highway 1 (the coast highway)—on my first day of work, the practitioners / construction workers greeted me unannounced at the entrance to the main temple & stood around me in a circle. It felt kinda cultish, though it wasn’t meant to be. They began alerting me to the dangers of the job—it was a totally for-realsy construction site, hard hats & all—& what I quickly came to learn is that there was plenty for me to look out for. Some of what I remember was included in the list.

What’s more, the lama who ran the show would occasional make curiously clear-seeing statements. For example, once the lama sent one of his students across the land—the temples are on a 1,000 acre plot—to investigate. He felt that one of the prayer wheels had become stuck. The student went out, investigated, & came back, saying that everything was in good working order. The lama, unconvinced, send the student out again, & the student learned that the lama was right! I don’t know how. Intuition? A pure hunch? Divine prophecy?

Other mysteries at the site abounded. For example, the sign above the door leading out of the kitchen read “Please do not slam the door. It disturbs beings on other realms.” As my experience at the temple progressed over time the mystery unfolded, & I tried to mirror this structure in the movement of the poem. All I can really say is that when I was there the place really took a hold on me, & to some extend still occupies a central place in my heart.

Also, couplets are beautiful. & The short lines are meant to communicate the panicky nature of being inundated with info at a new job without the necessary processing time to sort the info. Though I must admit that I frequently feel bombarded on the first day of a new job.

Your website reads, “Language explorations that last beyond the moment has been K-Funk’s goal.” Would you elaborate a bit on this goal and how you try to accomplish it within your poems?

I find myself whelmed with the drive to create language experiments about who I am… what I find beautiful, the forces that are at play within my life, & what I believe to be sacred, vitalizing, & long-lasting. I share what I believe to be my version of a truth in the hope that something I’ve written will leave a telling mark on the heart of my reader, hoping (always) that the experience is a shared one. There is a file on my computer titled “BADASS POEMS.” Richard Siken, Emily Dickinson, W.S. Merwin, Ben Doller, alongside other masters have been copy-&-pasted into this word doc that is +200 pages long. Maybe one day—when I am smarter, more lucid, & when my heart is more mature—one of my own poems will feel worthy of inclusion in my archive of beloved poems.

Last winter I read the selected letters of Allen Ginsberg. He writes Kerouac in one of the more memorable moments & declares the following (which feels right to me):

And when someone will read it, and see it, under the surface of my poem, as under the surface of his mind, a golden pole…and a silver shower; I hope to accomplish someday an outright sensual communion; and as my love grows purer and less lecherous, when someone peeks under the surface of what I say, they will really be made love to.

This seems beautiful & enough.

What are your obsessions—the ideas, themes, words or phrases that you always return to?

• Shakespeare’s 73rd
• The shapes & contours of love.
• Trying to replicate McDonald’s hash browns (at home) from scratch.
• The color blue.
• How to interrelate deeply & authentically with my friends w/o numbing out.
• Keat’s notion of negative capability: its value & (alas!) shortcomings.

Your first collection “Rainbow, Rainbow, Rainbow” is said to deal with your time as a construction worker and a monk. You’ve also worked a variety of other jobs, including a pizza delivery driver and a groundskeeper, among others. How do you feel these experiences have shaped your writing style?

I started detasseling corn at the age of 13 & have been working ever since. Mostly, I’ve worked manual labor, keeping close to the earth, moving furniture, making pizzas, shoeing horses, building Buddhist temples, applying stickers to porn. Stuff like this. Right now I work construction for the City of Boulder. These jobs have felt quotidian, mundane, & beautiful.

I consider my poetry to be honest, about my life experiences. Usually, though, I’m more interested in rendering the internal realities of my imagination rather than mimetically copying everyday life. Linda Gregerson, at the beginning of my thesis review in graduate school, recommended that I lie more in my poetry. This is probably deft, spot-on advice, though I have no real sense of what she meant.

(Note to self: in the future, more ephemeral dreaming, please.)

What is your go-to book(s) for when you feel stuck in your own writing?

Well I sure do love Melissa Kwansy’s The Nine Senses. I read it over & over because it seems like daily devotional meditations on the natural world. There is a delicious quality to the half-logical / illogical / internal movements of her imagistic sequences. Perhaps it is the honesty of this collection that puts wind in my sails.

Though honestly, I am almost constantly writing or editing. Laura Kasischke, one of my professors in workshop at Michigan, gave a send down to the notion of writer’s block. She said when she feels like she is blocked she knows in her heart-of-hearts that she’s just being kinda lazy & doesn’t feel like doing the work.

In my own experience this is true—I never really feel stuck, but there are some days when I’m willing to manufacture excuses because I’d rather (for instance) summit one of Colorado’s mountains instead. Or lay in bed watching Walking Dead. Or I’d like to eat Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream & binge on YouTube videos. The hardest part for me is getting my butt in the chair to write.

Your website claim you make “delicious eats in the kitchen.” What is it you like about cooking and still would like to learn?

Cooking for others is a great way to nurture community ties. I’ve been living in community continuously for the last 10 years, with as many as 100+ roommates & as few as 9, & the greatest boon is having the opportunity to receive & share culinary wisdom. When you cook for yourself it’s easy to shortchange yourself—I’ll just have noodles-in-a-cup again tonight— but when you arrange a meal for a community of beloveds the bar ratchets up. I enjoy this challenge.

I’ve enjoyed cooking food from the American south, Indian food, and Southeast Asian food in the past, yet have not tried my hand at French sauces. In the near future I’d like to play around in the kitchen with sauce recipes. My friend Chris tells me they can be quite extensive & take all day to make property. Because I am something of a sloppy, impatient cook working on sauces & dishes that mature slowly seems like a natural kitchen progression. I like to stir & gently tend to things.