An Interview with Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Equal to the Earth (Bench Press, 2009) and Payday Loans, a sonnet chapbook. His poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2007 and Best Gay Poetry 2008. Born in Singapore and educated at Oxford, he now lives in New York City and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter.

Q: You’re clearly a well-rounded poet with a wide range of interests, but this being the Fetish issue I want to start by asking you about your racier poems. (Does anyone still say “racy”?) Many formal poetry journals tend to be somewhat conservative in their tastes, and I don’t see many of those on your book’s acknowledgments page. At the same time, many other journals aren’t terribly receptive to formal verse. So where do you submit a poem like “Chapter Six: Anal Sex” that’s sexually explicit as well as rhymed and metered?

A: Now I understand why I could not get “Chapter Six: Anal Sex” published! Seriously, I think there is still a prejudice, in American poetry, against meter and rhyme, on the one hand, and sexual explicitness, on the other. The climate may be more permissive than before, but certain ideas still discipline our taste. Like the idea that meter is un-American or non-individual or unoriginal. And the idea that sexual explicitness is necessarily vulgar. We are used to getting our sex in prose, and even in free verse. When sex is treated in rhyme, we expect the poem to be humorous or mocking, but not serious and lyrical. Metrical poetry is associated with a certain decorum, by both its friends and enemies, and sexual explicitness violates those unspoken proprieties.

I remember a teacher in my MFA program asking me to write about something else besides sex, after reading two poems on that topic in two weeks. He meant well, wanting me to broaden my range, or something. He clearly thought that writing about sex was limited or limiting, although he would not have thought that of writing five books on a tiny city in New Jersey called Paterson. But for me writing about sex was like documenting a new city, more, a new country. My poem “Taproot,” which ends with anal sex in a public bathroom, traces the journey of its immigrant-writer to its logical consummation. Sex poems are not just about sex. If they are, they are boring.

“Taproot” was published in the British journal Mimesis. Another poem, “Razminovenie or Nonmeeting,” which imagines an anonymous hook-up and swears lyrically, was published in the Hong Kong-based review, Cha. The American journals that accepted my sexually explicit work were either small, Asian American or gay. The Rogue Scholars Collective was the first to publish my poems, which included a sestina about masturbation in the Met Museum called “Cold Pastoral.” Kartika Review, an on-line journal that publishes Asian American writing, put out my sonnet “Childhood Punishments.” My ode to dildos “Glass Orgasm” appeared first in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, and then in Best Gay Poetry 2008 (A Midsummer Night’s Press).