Christine Kitano teaches at Stony Brook University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She is the author of the poetry collections Birds of Paradise and Sky Country, which won the Central New York Book Award in Poetry. She is co-editor of They Rise Like a Wave, an anthology of Asian American women and nonbinary poets. Kitano is Zócalo’s Poetry Curator for August. She chatted with us in the green room about sundubu, the Santa Monica Pier, and grabbing a coffee with her father.
How has the pandemic affected how you think about or write poetry?
I think the pandemic affected my writing practice. I used to be very particular about it. Usually, I thought I could not write at home, that I could only write at my office. And then during the pandemic, there was no excuse, right? And so it has taught me that any barriers that I have towards writing a poem are self-imposed. And I'm noticing the pandemic has started to make its way as subject matter into my poems, which I find kind of strange, and I don't know why I'm a little bit resistant to that, but I'm just trying to be open to that and see how other people do it, because I think we're all going to be writing about it.
For those who are kind of afraid of poetry or think they don’t understand poetry, what advice would you give them?
The first impulse is to say take a class. I think that there is an assumption that because poems are made out of language, and we use language every day, that a person can just automatically know how to read a poem. And I do believe that a poem can be accessible to a lot of people. But I also think that there's value in learning traditions and learning some of the techniques that poets use. It's like taking an art appreciation or music appreciation class. Something like that can be helpful in just feeling a little bit more confident about approaching a poem.
But if that feels like too big a step, which I certainly understand, I would say just keep reading poems and find one that speaks to you. Look at it, study it, try to figure out what it is that that poem is doing that is speaking to you, and then search out other poems and see what they're doing. And if there's anything that you can learn from that poem that speaks to you, apply it to other poems that you're reading.
Where’s a place in L.A. that inspires you?
Santa Monica Pier. When I was in high school, I lived in Santa Monica. I didn't always go to school when I was supposed to go to school, but I would walk along the beach. I would go to the pier, and usually there wouldn't really be anybody there. And then there were also these swing sets next to the pier, and I would go swing on those.
In an alternate universe, what profession would you be doing right now?
Realistically, I would still be a teacher. I would’ve maybe studied something different—I’d always thought I could’ve been a historian or anthropologist. In my fantasy, I would be a professional ballerina. I think it’s similar to being a poet. Being a dancer has that, I guess, artistic necessity. The feeling of creating movement, words, language—all of that feels familiar in some ways, but also so incredibly different.
If you could magically learn any language and be an expert in it, what would it be?
I would love to speak so many languages! Probably Korean; my mom's Korean. I grew up kind of learning Korean, but I have never been fluent. I would love to actually be able to speak it and be comfortable with it.
What is one book or poet you’re reading right now?
I just finished the book Master Suffering by CM Burroughs. I just taught with her a couple of weeks ago. I'm also working towards the classes that I'm teaching in the fall. It’s a class on the ghazal, the haibun, and the sonnet. So I'm revisiting more contemporary sonnets, like American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, and looking at a lot of different forms to think about how these forms can give us shape, and also how we have to push against those forms.
Who is one person, dead or alive, that you’d want to grab drinks with?
So many people, but the first answer that comes to mind is my dad. He passed away when I was in high school. He didn't drink, so it would be something else—I would like to have a coffee with him.
What is your guilty TV pleasure?
The Great British Bake Off. The contestants don’t win any money, so the stakes are really low. I think I just like people trying really hard to do something that's not that important. They're not trying to save anybody's lives or anything. But they are just doing and pursuing this one task. And there's something about that that I find very comforting to watch.
L.A. has so much food to offer. What’s your favorite spot to eat in L.A.?
My favorite food is sundubu (Korean tofu stew) and my favorite spot used to be Beverly Soon Tofu. They closed during COVID. The place I go now is BCD Tofu on Wilshire. It’s a chain but it’s a very reliable and good chain.
You live in the Northeast now. What do you love about it that's different from L.A.?
The seasons. In L.A., it’s always around 70-something degrees. When I was growing up, I had never seen snow, so all these ideas of seasons changing just didn't really mean that much to me. And then I moved to Syracuse, New York, right after I finished my undergrad, and it was just so distinct. There would be fall, and they had these leaves that would change color, and then it would be winter, and it was winter forever. Then spring felt so great when it came, and then summer was nice, and then it would repeat, and it's that repetition of the seasons changing that I really like about being in the northeast.