Historical Strands: Shaping the Cyclorama
by Michael Collins
Michael Collins: Your collection has a lot of interplay between the personal and the historical. How did that pairing come about in the process of writing the poems that make up Into the Cyclorama?
Annie Kim: I’ve always envied people who could map family trees back to the Mayflower or pull out some great-aunt’s diary from the attic. Like a lot of other immigrants, my own family history is pretty thin. That’s probably why I’ve been so interested in delving into history—whether it’s about Korea at the end of World War II, or the crazy story of how a 6th-century Greek bronze helmet got into the hands of Korea’s first Gold Olympic medalist.
As I started writing poems for Into the Cyclorama I found myself drawn to collaging together fragments of my personal history with facts I’d researched about the larger historical backdrops to my narratives. Occasionally I invented historical texts, as in “The Bronze Helmet (a Retrospective),” or mashed up the historical with the contemporary, as in “Cyclorama.” One passage I kept returning to is from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, where he talks about how his book “aims to characterize and preserve the intervals of reflection, the distances lying between the most essential parts of this work.” Show the paper and the holes in the paper.
MC: Would you like to share anything about your motivations in structuring Into the Cyclorama? How does the structure, for example, relate to the title?
AK: Putting a book together is a weird, organic process for me. Imagine building a giant mobile made up of all these different types of pieces. But as you’re thinking about the shape of that mobile, you’re also tinkering with each part. My only guiding principle throughout this process was that I wanted readers to feel like they were coming along with me for the journey. So in the beginning you meet the main “characters” and get a sense of where the speaker is coming from. Then things get more complicated.
I knew I had the basic shape of the book’s structure once I’d written “Cyclorama.” I had a lot of poems at that point that used a strong historical lens, as well as some poems wrestling with the ethics of looking. “Cyclorama” let me focus on some of the truly terrible, violent acts humans inflict on each other, while examining how we feel as consumers of art depicting such acts. It brings together the historical strands we’ve talked about, along with violence and questions about artistic representation—two other themes in the book.
MC: One thing that strikes me about the collection is its range of forms, both traditional and experimental. Do you have a particular composition process that encourages this diversity? Is it related in any way to the central themes of the book?
AK: I wish I could say yes! The truth is, I'm happiest when I can make many different types of shapes. I get easily bored. Some poems, like “Historia,” just unfolded naturally, line after line, without changing form throughout the revision process. Others, like “Post-Colonial Album: 1980”—a long poem about my struggle to reconcile American privilege with living in Korea as a young child—morphed constantly. That poem started out as maybe four or five sections. After trying to make it shorter, I decided it had to be longer. The final version has three short sections that use a Korean lyric form, called the sijo, along with several longer, looser sections, including a prose scene from adulthood. Giving myself free rein to create whatever form fits the poem works best for me.
MC: Music comes up in your poems as both metaphor and structure. What are the roles of music in your collection?
AK: On an unconscious level I think we’re all hungry to see and make patterns. That’s one of the reasons I love playing violin as part of an orchestra. So music often finds its way into my poems, sometimes through images or allusions, sometimes as a shaping or formal device. “Prelude and Fugue” and “A Rag for My Father” are two poems in this book that use musical structures as springboards for poetic form. The prelude and fugue pairing, for example, is a form that composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich used in piano works. While preludes tend to be loose and imaginative, fugues are tightly constructed sequences that use multiple voices at one time. My poem isn’t fully one or the other, but it steals ideas from both.
MC: I noticed two other things, and I'm wondering how or if they are related. First, there are various references to things that are missing for the speaker, beginning with the final line of the opening poem: "At the center of my life I find these holes." Second, there are some interesting artifacts that have their stories told—albeit in a fragmented fashion. Is there a correspondence here?
AK: I think so. Both “The Bronze Helmet (a Retrospective)” and “Cyclorama” focus heavily on artifacts. In the first poem, it’s a Greek helmet forged in the 6th century, as well as objects like Olympian Sohn Kee-Chung’s running shoes and memorials. In the second, it’s the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a massive circular painting created in the 19th century. The reality of these objects—as things that persist, that we work to preserve—stands in tension with our inability as humans to create enduring truths out of our lives, much less our bodies. The artifacts become at once immensely comforting and provoking.
Writing about these objects calls up the same tensions. Whether they’re describing a restored painting or a dead brother, the poems try to invoke the whole complex of emotions that crops up.
MC: You’ve made a living for yourself, first as a litigator and currently as a law school administrator. How have these other pursuits influenced your poetry?
AK: I don’t write much about my work as a lawyer, though I do in “Dispatcher,” a poem about the eerie ways in which you tell stories (or withhold them) as a litigator. Writing about legal practice often means writing about former clients, so I generally avoid it. In subtler ways, though, my experience as a lawyer influences my writing. Taking lots of depositions changes the way you ask questions, even when there’s no court reporter around. Boiling down hundreds of pages of data into a single page of a brief teaches you how to write quick narratives. At the same time, I’ve had to unlearn some lessons from legal writing, like following a tight logical structure and backing up all my claims!
My current work as an assistant dean for public service lets me spend a lot of time with smart and interesting students, as well as great colleagues. I don’t think I could’ve written Into the Cyclorama while doing any other job.
Michael Collins’s poems have appeared in more than fifty journals and magazines, including Grist, Kenning Journal,Pank, and Smartish Pace. His first chapbook, How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water, won the Exact Change Press Chapbook Contest in 2014. A full-length collection, Psalmandala, was published later that year, and a second chapbook, Harbor Mandala, appeared in 2015. He lives in New York with his wife and son and teaches creative and expository writing at New York University.