Monstrous PoetryKenji Liu Is Using Frankenstein as a Metaphor for Toxic Masculinity

Photo courtesy of Kenji Liu

Kenji Liu and I enter a tea shop on Las Tunas Drive in an area that feels like the epicenter of the boba tea shop movement in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. K-pop plays over the speakers while a worker noisily fixes a hole in the ceiling, and Liu and I have to raise our voices in order to discuss Monsters I Have Been, his new collection of sci-fi–inspired poems that uses the figure of Frankenstein’s monster as a way to reflect on toxic masculinity. But though our location isn’t an ideal place to record an interview, after immersing myself in Monsters’ mix of languages, pop-culture references, and chopped-up texts, I wanted to meet in a location that has a similarly busy vibrance.

Much of the work in Monsters I Have Been is what Liu calls “Frankenpo,” a style of his own creation that chops and mixes multiple texts into one body. The poem “Stomach me, delicious world” is a Frankenpo, and according to Liu’s notes at the back of the book, combines “the screenplay of Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997) + screenplay of Alice Wu’s Saving Face (2004) + article ‘Confucius on Gay Marriage’ in the Diplomat + New York Times article ‘Court in Hong Kong Invalidates Antisodomy Law from British Era.’”

Liu’s poems are experimental and strange; they demand that readers move through the pages without a guide—and many times without a speaker. Like specimens in a mad scientist’s laboratory, they are raided parts dropped into glass containers of formaldehyde for our viewing. But what are we looking at, and what does the scientist want us to do with the pieces? We sit down with our tea, and Liu begins to explain.

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How did Frankenpo, as a form, come about?

I was playing around with using software to mess with text. For example, I was using online divination software like the I Ching, asking questions and using the responses [as a] basis for poetry. I would find artificial intelligence on the internet, ask it questions, and see what it told me. Then I would take responses from I Ching or artificial intelligence (AI) and [plug them into] Google translate: [It’s] like the N+7 Oulipo method, but I [used] Google Translate because it could go between all the languages in my family—English, Japanese, Chinese. [As I] looked for more ways to mess with texts, I thought, Why not take a text, break it all the way down to individual words, and have a computer mix it all up and randomize it? That way I can combine two or three texts at the same time.

As a method, it was just me wanting to randomize and see what happens; but as time went on, I [wanted to] be strategic about picking texts on topics I was interested in—[so] no matter what the result was, in the end it could speak back to the original. I was looking at masculinity as a theme, and a lot of my texts ended up being related. Frankenstein’s monster was a good metaphor [because he] was a man created from lots of dead bodies. It just so happened that [2018] was the 200-year anniversary of Frankenstein, so it was a huge coming together of different ideas.

There has been more and more work by other poets who have been looking at computers and robots. There is more sci-fi and speculative poetry, and I’ve always been a big sci-fi fan. I wanted to see if I could use AI or internet software as [though it’s another] person to have a conversation with and [to] come up with something almost collaboratively.

Kind of like the movie Her.

Well, the AI stuff that’s out there isn’t super smart yet, so it wasn’t that satisfying to speak to some of the bots, but the I Ching was really cool because it draws on this ancient system. It’s more like tarot in the sense that it’s a really complex set of interpretations [of] existing ideas and symbols.

If your book was in high school, what books would be in the same crew as your book, and what would they all be doing at lunch?

Well, clearly Frankenstein. Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream, about the guy who invented computers. [And] Margaret Rhee’s Love, Robot, was pretty important for me. Basically, my book would be hanging out with all the nerdy books, playing Dungeons & Dragons, watching Star Trek, and always wanting to see the latest “computer destroys the world” movie. It’s weird how [in those types of movies] they invent computers and AI people with gender, and the AI [knows whether it’s male or female]. That always plays out in gender stereotypes: If there’s a female robot, they’re going to be sexy and try to kill you through their attractiveness. And male robots turn into assholes that want to take over the world.

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That makes me think of this Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where John Ritter plays an evil bot. But reading your book, I have to say I was thinking more about organic monsters, like zombies. Or Godzilla.

Godzilla is definitely in the lineage of this book. I include those monsters too, but as a child I was more into robot- [and] spaceship-type stuff. I don’t think I saw the original Godzilla until I was in my late 20s, which is not an easy thing to admit as a Japanese person. But I was into the old Japanese anime, and they were always robots and transformers.

I was also thinking about flesh and blood because the other metaphor for me is taxidermy, and that came from reading Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut.  [Mohabir] uses taxidermy as a metaphor for queerness and queer people of color, and that made me think of [how] something that exists in the world [might be] called a monster, as if that [were] a bad thing, but [is] actually not. We’re just different from what’s expected. We’re monsters because we live on the edges of society, or we’re oppressed in some way. If we don’t listen to mainstream society’s messages about who we are, then we have to find inspiration to become something to fight that.

The poem, “Now that I know What It’s Like” feels like the crux of the collection, and the moment where the creator must come to terms with its creation. What monsters did you face in the creation of this book?

The hard part was trying to figure out how to responsibly talk about gender. It’s easy to write something [that criticizes] toxic masculinity, or our current president, or any number of things in the news about guys acting badly. But if I only talked shit, I wouldn’t be able to show how those dominant forms of masculinity are created through society—how we’re responsible for the creation of these monsters. I wanted to talk about non-dominant forms of masculinity, but I didn’t want to misrepresent or reproduce how mainstream society looks down on these forms.

How could I talk about being an Asian American man who is often stereotyped and racialized? There are all these stereotypes about Asian American men not being desirable, or being effeminate, so I wanted to write through my own experience of that. [I also wanted to] draw on other places like Japan, where people are creating different forms of masculinity and gender that don’t exist here, [and from] pop-culture [figures] like Prince, who is one of the genderqueer icons we have in the United States.

You seem to do away with the all-knowing author/speaker, and instead enlist a more scientific search for the unknown. If this were a scientific experiment, what would be your hypothesis?

The hypothesis would probably be, Can I use the metaphor of a monster as a way to explore masculinity in the United States in a way that isn’t just one-dimensional?

And do you have any findings?

I feel that will be revealed as people buy the book. So far, the response has been positive, but I’m waiting to see if someone points out something I missed. There may be things I wasn’t as responsible [about] as I thought I was. The good thing is [that] I don’t think the book is an end product. It was more like, Here’s this question, let’s see if I can figure it out as I write it. Hopefully, the book doesn’t come off sounding like it’s some kind of conclusion; I wanted it to be an exploration.

I was thinking, how, through poetry, do I destroy patriarchy? How do I destroy these systems? Of course, I can’t really do that through poetry—but I wanted to find a way of writing that would feel like I was. I started [by] asking questions of the I Ching and artificial intelligences that were [coded as] male. I think I asked William Shakespeare AI something. I Ching is attached to Chinese patriarchy; the responses it gives favor the son or the father, and having a good relationship with the father or the emperor. I [asked] questions it wouldn’t want to or know how to answer because the I Ching is invested in protecting patriarchy.

Monsters I Have Been by Kenji Liu (Photo credit: Alice James Books)

You’re doing that thing where the robot destroys itself and starts smoking because it doesn’t know what to do.

Yeah, it’s like a Denial of Service (DoS) Attack. The other thing is [that] the I Ching website I was using was in English, but I’m pretty sure the translation into English was done by a British guy. I think originally an English translation of the I Ching exists because the British were interested in China economically and politically when the British Empire was expanding, so these religious and spiritual texts from Asia originally were translated because of colonization and imperialism. So if I’m asking the I Ching questions, whom am I really asking?

Dancing, music, and singing are motifs throughout the collection. Even the forms of some poems kind of dance down the page, and music notes intertwine with text. Are you a dancer?

I’m not as much of a dancer these days because I don’t go out past 9:30 p.m., but when I was in my 20s, I used to go to raves all the time. At least one of the poems is about those times, about my experience of being at raves and being able to explore who I was outside of being my parents’ son. I was [in] my early 20s, and I was getting to explore outside of what I thought I was by using my body differently. I didn’t grow up in a dancing household, so it was a [way to break] out of my body.

The dancing and music in other poems are more traditional Japanese Obon festival songs, and wanting to connect my poetry to something larger than myself. I didn’t grow up with these traditional dances and songs, and I’ve only been able to learn them in recent years. Japanese people traditionally don’t have social dancing or European type-dances where you dance as a couple. There [are] more communal dances and songs [that] reflect daily life: working in the fields, working in the mines, fishing. I wanted to see what would happen if I brought those things in as juxtaposition and also connected [them] to a larger history. Some of the dances are masculine and some are feminine but everybody does them. I brought in Japanese culture to show other ways of doing things, to show other forms of gender, and to say, “Here’s a way of being with each other and with our bodies that isn’t Western.

If your book threw a dinner party, what would be on the menu?

Hmmm. Foods that cross over between different cultures, like different versions of wrapped things. So dumplings and empanadas, food wrapped in leaves, like tamales and the Chinese “tamale” wrapped in bamboo with rice inside. Definitely handmade sesame noodles, Vietnamese multilayered drink desserts with all kinds of jellies, and also crossover bobas with horchata in [them].

Don’t forget to “eat undesirable men” like in the poem, “Maggie and Tony.” We can chop them up and add them as a layer to the Vietnamese dessert.

That’s a great image. Oh! And also different kinds of pan, like conchas but also different kinds of Chinese sweet breads. I could go on forever. 

The hard part was trying to figure out how to responsibly talk about gender.

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In the poem, “Gyoshoku danshi,” you write, “I’m here to write/ a different man.” Is that you as the speaker? Who is this different man? And were you successful?

Sure, that’s me. That’s kind of my artist statement. That poem is about a different form of masculinity that exists in Japan, the “fish eating” man. Was I successful in writing a different man? I don’t think there’s an end product, but I use writing as a way to write my way into something new.

I kind of see everything as text. Everything that I am is made from all the different texts and words and ideas I’ve been exposed to my entire life. Some have been intentional and some are unintentional. Choosing what I read and what ideas I explore are ways of writing myself into the person I want to be. So while writing a poem or a book may or may not necessarily make me into a new person, it helps me explore. Putting things down on paper and then publishing it is a commitment to trying to be those things I want to be.

That’s a lot of pressure. How does that feel now that the book is in people’s hands?

It’s a little scary. People assume things about you based on what they read, and I’m also aware that there are very few other books out there that explore this kind of masculinity in this way. I can’t say it’s unique but there are very few. There [will be] attention [on] how I present myself, and questions that are about the writing but also about me. I wrote the book in order to stimulate conversations, and I just have to take responsibility for that.

Do you ever wish you could create without all these thoughts about what is responsible?

No, it would end up being boring. I don’t think [considering] responsibility [is] a bad thing. It’s what helps me to create because it gives me focus and direction. Floundering around trying to figure out what I wanted to write—that sounds painful.

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by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
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Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, daughter of Mexican immigrants, is a poet and writer, community organizer, and arts educator.