“That Careful Distillation”: An Interview with T. Liem

What are we made of, if not repetitions and alterations?

What are we made of, if not repetitions and alterations? The notion of identity is ever-evolving, and this is conveyed brilliantly by T. Liem in Slows: Twice, their second, and most recent, collection of poetry. Reiteration is a through-line of the book in that it is inextricable from time. What happens when we resist the colonial project, embrace slowness, reflect on language? How do our relationships evolve, and how do we witness ourselves?

T. Liem’s debut collection Obits. (2018)—which was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award and won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, along with the A. M. Klein Prize—centres the question of mourning; with Slows: Twice, Liem invites us to reflect differently on the present moment and our potential for joy. In April last year, I interviewed T. Liem over email about their remarkable work. Our exchange was deliberate and unhurried, in keeping with the theme of their new book.

Veronique Synnott: The mirroring effect you create with Slows: Twice can give the impression (when we reach the “end”—or is it the beginning?) that no time has passed at all. Did you set out to make time the central theme of your collection? What process led you to this?

T. Liem: Time is everything in this collection. I first followed the idea of mirroring poems by taking the last line of one poem and using it to start another to see what would happen if the lines were inverted, or if I wrote the poem backward like a sloppy palindrome—so not a palindrome at all! In any case, this was an experiment and a way to get myself out of a rut. This was also a way to allow myself to revisit ideas after time had passed, to revise ideas, but not erase the old ones. The first and last poems, for me, exist outside of time, or they exist in a future in which our understanding of time and thus our selves has changed.

Time is also important in the sense that I had read my paternal grandmother’s account of her life and I had been speaking to my mother about her childhood immigration experience, and I was revelling in what had changed in less than two generations. The generations in my family are long—my grandmother was born in 1905—so these generations span almost the entire 20th century.

Veronique Synnott: Speaking of generations, in “The Second Half Folds in on Itself,” you reference photos—one of your maternal grandparents and one of your paternal grandmother. How much of yourself do you feel is being revealed or concealed in this collection?

T. Liem: I suspect I am both revealed and obscured. Sometimes the things I think are obvious about me, or obviously imagined, are not so obvious. Then there is also the fact that not everything that is true, or that truly happened, works in a poem so maybe because of this I am able to conceal parts of myself, or at least minor details. My speakers express some truth and occupy some dimensions of my self/selves, but we’re not the same. Still, people will take away whatever they see and that’s fine. Many people have read my work and pointed out things to me that make sense or reveal something about me that I didn’t mean to reveal, that I didn’t realize were there, which is a kind of vulnerability I am happy to experience even if it scares me a bit. I love being read in all senses!

Many people have read my work and pointed out things to me that make sense or reveal something about me that I didn’t mean to reveal, that I didn’t realize were there, which is a kind of vulnerability I am happy to experience even if it scares me a bit.

VS: In your collection, inevitability—whether one wants it or not, their story goes on—is juxtaposed with hope (“There Are No Actual Monsters in This Poem I Hope”). Do you think by slowing down we can cultivate an optimistic state of mind? How important is hope to you as a writer?

TL: Hope is important in every aspect of my life and it’s something for me that is fraught, though I am trying to make it less so. Hope is desire, it is wanting things and this is a kind of care you show for yourself, your loved ones and the world. If you don’t have hope it’s practically the same as wanting nothing, and I don’t think it is self-less. If you want nothing, you don’t want things to change and if you don’t want things to change, what? Why?!

It is also something I thought a lot about in this collection as I often feel ashamed or guilty of my morbid mode of being. I kept trying to write joyful or hopeful poems and coming up short. In some ways slowing down is an answer to this, which for me is allowing myself to go at my own pace. I’m a slow processor stuck in old conversations getting the esprit de l’escalier three years too late. Oh no, I’ve gone on a tangent! I swear I’ll have an answer to this question by 2026!

VS: The speaker at some point recalls seeing “someone carrying a tote bag that said 'be courageous.'” They wonder: “but why not just say most of us are scared.” I am curious, is the speaker scared? And how does the shape of fear change when time slows?

TL: The short answer is yes. The speaker in this poem and [the speaker in] its companion/mirror poem are scared of climate disaster as it is very indirectly referenced through trash. Trash becomes a way to keep time, at least in a city in North America as it is disappeared each week, picked up, packed down and dumped, creating unlivable places usually where people still live. The idea that most of us are scared for me is almost a comfort because there might be power in such a collective to make something change out of this fear.

VS: “The cut-up and erased texts” on pp. 11/81 greatly obscure the original text, found in “the records of the Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements for the year 1900, which is the year the British decided Singapore Mean Time would be adopted in the settlements.” These pieces disrupt the notion that time is tidy and appear to interrogate colonial discourses around time. Could you speak to this tension or the movement toward critical reflection?

TL: It was important to me to include a literal representation of a colonizer imposing standard time, which ultimately is about being able to coordinate the invasion and stealing of resources/wealth with more efficiency. There is a specific time ball in Singapore I had been thinking about and then I found the documents where the legislative council simply decided what time it would be in Singapore as of January 1, 1900 or 1901. I usually think about clocks as just an expression of our relationship to the sun and something to coordinate ourselves, but, of course, the history of standard is tied up in imperialism, and the exploitation of natural resources and labour.

VS: Since we are on the subject of coordination: how did you go about organizing the sequence of poems, especially considering “The Second Half Folds in on Itself”? Do you consider the book’s table of contents to be a poem?

TL: It would really please me if the table of contents were read as a poem. I hadn’t thought of that! I don’t know exactly what to say about sequencing because I do it kind of intuitively. As I mentioned before, the first and the last poem for me are meant to exist outside of time as a kind of prologue and epilogue. They were inspired by the Alice Notley line that is used for one of the titles.

The question that arose for me was: if we make it to a future we’ve dreamed of, a kind of utopia, what happens to our memories, to our former selves? There are so many moments in my life during which I’ve felt shame and maybe even more that I feel ashamed of—I suppose this is what growth can feel like. I guess I want to know how such a negative affect would be held. I wonder what it would be like to be in a future or utopia, to arrive; do we bring all of that with us, or does it all become incomprehensible?

The question that arose for me was: if we make it to a future we’ve dreamed of, a kind of utopia, what happens to our memories, to our former selves?

VS: In “Someone Asks How Have You Been,” singing is made possible by repetition and accumulation, not unlike memory. I would love to know more about this piece and the speaker’s relationship to voice.

TL: This poem is a tribute to a song I love by Bill Callahan called “Too Many Birds” and a tribute to everyone who freezes up when someone asks how they are. The song ends slowly as he sings a line again and again, adding one word each time until the sentence is almost complete. It’s such a beautifully executed gesture of feeling stifled, yet continuing to sing. To reference that meme, “how 'am' I??” I don’t know, but I will continue to sing. I am unabashedly imitating the song and it’s true that I don’t remember the lyric until I hear it. It’s also true that there’s usually a song playing in my mind whether or not someone has just asked me how I’ve been, or anything like that.

VS: You write that language is a “barrier” but also the foundation on which we build, making change possible (“language is change / changed by prosody”). How is language implicated by the practice of slowing down?

TL: I’m not sure yet. Prosody changes language in the sense that the way we have pronounced words in English has changed over time. I was relistening to Krista Tippett interviewing Ocean Vuong and he said, “Stories are carried in the body.” When we speak we change language with our bodies, the way we pronounce words, our accents, our implied, indirect, idiosyncratic meanings—these instances of speech all do something to language. We build it up and dismantle it the same way.

Something else about these moments you’ve referenced, and which is central to the book, is meant to be an acknowledgement of how the words one uses to describe oneself change over time, especially with respect to identity. Words fall [out of] appropriate usage as they are used, overused, misused. Sometimes words that once felt empowering can later feel disastrously limiting. Anyone who has ever referred to themself as mixed-race or bi-racial, or queer, has intimate experience with this, but it goes for other identity words as well, of course. And I don’t think this is my own special or new idea—it’s an eternal tension with language—like the Joanna Newsom lyric I think about all the time: “the signifieds butt heads / With the signifiers”!

VS: This shows up in your writing: the codes are many! And the devices used are varied and imaginative. Can you speak about the importance of experimentation in your work?

TL: Experimentation is generative for me. Setting some parameters and being curious about what happens within them is a way of shifting my brain. Depression, anxiety, and general introversion have often rendered me a feeling of emptiness and total loneliness, where I could not possibly have anything I need to say, or anything worth saying to anyone. I spend many days feeling blank. Even in day-to-day interactions, speaking is difficult. At the same time, poetry is the ultimate place for me to express myself as it is the place where I am allowed to be extremely precious about my words—I am allowed to edit, to be playful, to have time to compose my words slowly. The experiment is a way into my own mind, to actually start the translation to the page/language. Once I begin, once there are words on the page, I can find something to work with and shape it into a poem—that careful distillation. This whole book was an experiment!

VS: This brings to mind Agnès Varda—I appreciate the reference in “Time You Can’t Argue With,” which brings into focus the hour between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. Can you share how this piece came to fruition?

TL: Do you ever look at the clock and then have way too many thoughts and then look at the clock again and only one minute has passed? Imagine how many different versions of yourself you could occupy, how many arguments you could have with yourself in one hour. For me time slows down when I am in my head like that, and each minute takes up its own space.

VS: Yes, and you capture this so well! It reminds me of the editing stage. You attended a virtual event recently and mentioned to me afterward that, similarly to the speaker, you prefer editing to writing. Perhaps one could argue that editing is writing. Can you talk about your relationship to editing?

TL: I can’t think while looking at a blank page. My brain generates words, sounds, sentences when I walk, when I am with people, when there is no pen and paper in sight. When I sit down to write I often forget all thoughts—what’s left is that feeling that I definitely had a good thought three hours ago, but I don’t know what it was. This means I have to kind of force myself to write, which is where the experimentation comes in. Then I get to edit, which yes, for sure, is a kind of writing—erasing is writing? Anyway, I also get a kind of sick satisfaction editing down work. It’s a joyful process to give the lines that do not get cut the space to be read.

VS: The sadness and tenderness in your work is home to so much beauty. Many moments will stay with me, including:

“amplifying softness to mimic intimacies”

“if you’re lonely haul someone else out of yourself”

“crying is not a standing thing"

“what happens when you argue with time: a circle?”

Are you writing in pursuit of beauty, of clarity, both? Do you sometimes feel like the two are competing?

TL: The way my brain works—or the way I perceive it to work—is that I am writing in pursuit of clarity, which is sometimes why I think I’m not actually meant to be a poet! Sometimes I just want to say what I’m thinking, which I suppose would usually be clocked as too abstract and not “grounded,” nor poetic. I struggle with metaphor (and figurative language in general) and I often want to say things so directly that, yes, they feel a little ugly, over-exposed, too plain.

My struggle with metaphor is that I have a knee jerk reaction to it—after the moment of ecstasy in which two things are compared and my mind opens up to it, my mind then shifts and compiles a list: here are all the ways those things are not alike at all! Here is a list of ways that the metaphor ignores something true about the parts of itself. At the same time, sometimes I do just like the way a sentence sounds and from there I will try to build around it. I don’t think the two are competing though, no. I think clarity is beautiful—when the water of a lake is clear we get to see to the bottom!—and sometimes a string of sentences/words/marks on the page that are made more for their sound sense or their beauty on the page can hold a great deal of clarity because our brains will be taking them in in a different way and see some other bottom of the lake, so to speak.

VS: In “Consider the Hands You Will Not Touch,” you write “You want / to know what happens next and you will [ … ] Have you seen what people are doing to live?” And in another piece, you write “It’s strange to love what can unfold from hurt.”

Could you speak more to this tension, between predictability and surprise?

TL: There is a poem by Brenda Shaughnessy called “I Have a Time Machine” and I think about the first couple of lines all the time, which continues from the title: “But unfortunately it can only travel into the future / at a rate of one second per second … ” I think the set-up captures this tension and then delightfully twists it with that second line. Twists in that it is both funny and allows for this possibility that the way we experience time is not inherent to time as a dimension. I like the idea that we could experience time differently, as in our dreams. I like the idea that when we have déjà vu it is because we dreamed that tedious moment—we experienced time at some other rate, so to speak, for a moment. Our relationship to linear time is tense, no? Maybe more so for those of us who experience anxiety and depression and are thus almost always out of time in a way—worried about the future, feeling doomed by the past while also feeling every second tick by. I’m being dramatic!

To shift for a moment, the second line you quoted—it has to do with writing about pain and how I can love a poem that was inspired by something hurtful and how strange and wonderful it is that art holds those experiences and us together. For me, this connects to my questions about a future in which we and our pain is incomprehensible …what would the poetry look like?

I like the idea that we could experience time differently, as in our dreams. I like the idea that when we have déjà vu it is because we dreamed that tedious moment—we experienced time at some other rate, so to speak, for a moment.

VS: In Slows: Twice, this quest for understanding is ever-present. And the images are striking. For example:

“another grandmother stands resting / her hand on a chair with no one in it”

“each word is a drawer”

“to drape tenderness around questions / it is a leaning process”

How do your poems take shape, and whose writing have you been most inspired by since the publication of your first poetry collection, Obits., in 2018?

TL: The middle poem was inspired by Jane Wong’s poem “Everything.” It is this unified, though fragmented, piece. Because of this fragmentation, the space between lines, it is what the title promises. Another important thread in the book was inspired by The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, which covers the CIA’s involvement in mass killings that happened in Indonesia in 1965 and elsewhere around that time. Then, as you mentioned—and I have no good reason for this—I was also reading Dante’s Inferno and it made its way in. Maybe it was because of lockdowns, who knows. I think I am transparent with my influences as many are mentioned in the notes of the book or appear as epigraphs—Jenny Xie, Maxine Hong Kingston, Erica Hunt, Maggie Nelson, it goes on. One poem’s title comes from The Tempest by way of Call Me Zebra, a novel by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. The narrator misquoted the line but nonetheless gave me a starting place for something I had already been thinking about.

VS: As a final question, what are you most curious about or wanting to immerse yourself in these days? Can you tell us a little bit about what you are currently working on or what you want to work on next?

TL: Novels!! Another way of saying this is that I want to be immersed in long-form work. I’ve been realizing over and over again that I love the book as a format, or as a unit. It is both exhilarating and extremely intimidating to think about writing that many words, filling that many pages, but that is what I am working toward. Is it crass to talk about the novel this way, simply as a lot of words? I do because I am so used to paring down and taking away—so I’d like to see what’s possible for a poet like me in the novel form. I want to create characters and meet them and see what happens when they meet each other. I want to write fanfiction for my life—I’m kidding, but I am a confessional writer so I am following an impulse to renegotiate my typical way of mining my life into a different form. Right now this just feels like the way I want to think through ideas—and writing is key to thinking for me. I will likely have to write three novels worth of text to get one. And all of that could just turn into more poetry. I think of my writing as the result of lots of failures, so that would be fine with me.

About the authors

Veronique Synnott is a queer writer and artist from Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). She lives with invisible disabilities and is interested in the relationships between gender, age, mental health, and power structures. An MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Guelph, Veronique has work published in carte blanche, Vallum: Contemporary Poetry, and forthcoming in Contemporary Verse 2.

T. Liem is the author of Slows: Twice (Coach House, 2023), and Obits.(Coach House, 2018). Their writing has been published in Apogee, Plenitude, The Boston Review, Grain, Maisonneuve, Catapult, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, and elsewhere. They live in Montreal / Tio’Tia:ke, on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territories.