Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is also the co-editor of What Are You Looking At: The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. His essays, stories, and poems have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Bellingham Review, North American Review, Isotope, Crab Orchard Review, Post Road, and many other journals and anthologies. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida and is editor of Sweet: A Literary Confection. Sukrungruang recently spoke with Nonfiction Editor Silas Hansen about his writing practices, writing in more than one genre, and what he looks for as an editor.
Silas Hansen: I was first introduced to your work when you read from Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy at Ohio State, not long after it was published. Since then, I’ve read several of your essays, which sometimes—but not always—deal with similar subject matter about your family, your Thai heritage, and growing up in the Midwest. I even recently re-read a flash essay of yours, “Chop Suey,” from Brevity 19, and was—as I always am while reading flash nonfiction, and yours in particular—awed by your ability to write something so short that carries that much weight. Could you tell me a little bit about how you approach writing in these different forms and lengths? How does your writing process differ for a flash piece vs. a longer essay vs. a book-length memoir?
Ira Sukrungruang: First, thanks, Silas for your kind words. I’m always intrigued by a writer’s process. There are writers who guard their process like locked gems, writers like James Tate, for example, whom I had the pleasure to listen to a few years ago. When asked about his process, he couldn’t/didn’t answer the question in a coherent manner, as if giving word to his process would be like giving a thief the keys to a convertible. I respect that, though. It furthers that mythos that writing just happens, that it suddenly appears. It’s how we like to think Chopin composed his music. There are also writers like Ron Carlson or Robert Olen Butler who take us through every decision they make as writers. We get a glimpse into the writer’s mind as he writes a story, essay, poem. We get to see the product take shape step-by-step.
About my own process? Each piece of writing has its own rules for me. This might sound a bit strange, but my flash pieces and my memoir were constructed similarly. My flash pieces are exactly what the word flash implies—a flash in memory. I’m struck by an image in time. I’m haunted by it—like the image of my mother bowling in the flash piece “Chop Suey.” This haunted-ness carries me to the computer. My memoir, in many ways, is a series of constructed flashes set in chronological order. My initial drafts of Talk Thai were composed of flashes of memory. Once I wrote all the flashes down, I began with the bridges and expositional information needed to make a memoir work.
With personal essays—man—that’s tougher. I recently attended a talk by the great poet Derek Walcott. He talked about silence. He talked about how poets need to exist in this silence before a word is put to the page. I think when I write more meditative essays, I find myself in silence. I find myself meditating. I allow my mind to go in strange places. My wife Katie always knows when I’ve been writing an essay. I’m in a daze, one foot in the talking and walking world, one foot in the world in my mind.
Here’s an interesting observation: I’ve noticed my flash pieces are written in the morning, the longer essays in the afternoon, and my memoir almost exclusively in the wee hours of night. Do you think it has something to do with light?
SH: I’ve never thought about trying to write flash nonfiction in the morning—I may have to try that! On this subject of different writing processes for different types of writing, I wanted to talk for a minute about your poetry. You just had a collection—In Thailand It Is Night—published by University of Tampa Press, which I can’t wait to read. I’m always fascinated by people who can write in more than one genre (probably because I have failed so miserably at it myself). How did you come to start writing poetry? Do you see your work in one genre influencing—or maybe conversing with—your work in the other?
IS: I first explored poetry in graduate school at Ohio State. I was in my second year, and my mentor at the time, Stephen Kuusisto, taught me the lyric essay, this mix between lyric poetry and the personal essay. Suddenly, I was looking at my work not only through content, but language and the musicality of language. Language before served the purpose of story. But now language was about sound and rhythm and meter. In learning about the lyric essay, I realized that content could sometimes come second. That meaning can come from the gaps. Also, I’ve always been a visually oriented person. I loved how lyric essays looked on the page. How shape can tell readers a lot before they even ingest a word. A poem, before we even make sense of it, is a visual seduction. A poem announces itself in shape, and shape leads to language and language leads to emotional response. All of this works on the unconscious level. We do it with prose too. It’s the reason I tell my students to look at the shape of paragraphs. I tell them that before I even read a word, I flip through the pages seeing what I can learn via shape. Is a piece too blocky? Is it relying too much on exposition? Is it too short and choppy? Too much scene? Poetry taught me shape matters. But not only the shape of a paragraph, but the shape of a word, the shape our mouths make when speaking.
At a writers’ event the same year that I was introduced to the lyric essay, I won a raffle (the only raffle I’ve ever won, mind you) and the prize was not a cruise or a trip to Europe, but six volumes of poetry, which I thought I would give to my then-girlfriend who was a poet. Since we had a long distance relationship I thought I’d read one—Timothy Liu. Then I read another—Marie Howe. Then it was like a potato chip commercial…you couldn’t stop at one… or two…or three…or four. I devoured these books, and for the next three years, I read collection after collection after collection. At the same time, I thought, Why not? Why not try a poem? And I did. And it was all emo. And when it wasn’t emo, it was vague abstractions with words I now tell my students to avoid at all cost: reality, oblivion, soul. I wrote these poems in secret. I wrote them in notebooks, on bar napkins, on bathroom stall doors, on the composition textbook I was supposed to be teaching from, on my friend’s hand. I wrote poetry during office hours, in class, while talking on the phone with my mother. I was a bit poetry obsessed. Every day the mail person brought a package with a new poetry book. (I was/am so addicted to Amazon.)
But poetry started with prose. And my prose got better because of poetry. I decided my training during my time in grad school was not only to be a good creative nonfiction writer, but a good writer in general. To try my hand at all genres. To explore, to experiment. To fail and fail again. Fail better! (Love you, Beckett.)
Can I let you in on a little secret? I was writing poetry for another less artistic reason. A real self-serving reason that I’m almost too ashamed to mention. Back then I was ULTRA addicted to sending out my work to magazines. I loved literary magazines. I loved sending work out. I loved rejections. As a prose writer, I found I could submit only so much. I had three essays ready to go. Maybe two pieces of fiction. With poetry, I could submit like mad. And I did. And I’m ashamed of myself for dong so because I didn’t believe in my poetry yet, not until years later, not until well after grad school. I was writing poetry because I wanted that rush of sending work out. I seriously believed this is what writers do—they send out. No one said, “Ah, dummy, writers write. And real writers write without thought of where it will end up.”
STUDENTS OUT THERE, HEED THIS ADVICE! THIS SHOULD NOT BE THE REASON TO WRITE POETRY/TO WRITE IN GENERAL. DO NOT FOLLOW MY LEAD. DO NOT SUBMIT BAD WORK THAT YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN. DO NOT SUBMIT TO MAGAZINES TO FULFILL A STRANGE ADDICTION. SUBMIT WHEN YOU BELIEVE IN YOUR WORK AND WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY. (I’ll stop shouting now.)
Maybe this is the answer I should have given you, Silas: I began writing poetry because I married a poet. Our love talk isn’t in iambic pentameter, but wouldn’t it be cool if it was?
SH: I know that in addition to writing, and teaching, you’re also the editor of Sweet. Can you tell me a little about what you look for as an editor? What attracts you to a piece? What are your deal-breakers?
IS: That’s a hard question. If I go in looking for something, I’m not allowing myself to be surprised by a piece. One of the missions of Sweet is to publish creative nonfiction across the spectrum, from memoir to lyric essays to lists. From traditional to experimental. What first attracts me is language, language that surprises, language that perfectly fits the mood and tone of a piece. Content is always secondary. I never try to reject or accept a piece on a first read. I go to bed. And then the next day I see if the writing has stuck with me. There are times I can’t sleep because these essays are dashing around in my brain. I know then this essay needs to be published in Sweet.
SH: I love that feeling of reading something and not being able to stop thinking about it, even to sleep. That brings me to my next—and last—question: what was the last piece of published nonfiction that made you feel that way?
IS: Recently, I read Ryan Van Meter’s essay collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now. It’s spectacular. And I just taught Lidia Yuknavitch’s essay, “Explicit Violence.” Talk about sleepless nights. Talk about a voice I can listen to for hours. Talk about words like heavily weighted punches. I left the essay in a daze.