Cathy Park Hong on Poetry, A.I. and an Intellectual Homecoming

October 18, 2023

This semester we were pleased to welcome Cathy Park Hong to the UC Berkeley Department of English as Professor and Class of 1936 First Chair in the College of Letters and Science. We spoke to her about poetry, AI and UC Berkeley as an intellectual homecoming. 

Cathy Park Hong’s New York Times bestselling book of creative nonfiction, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, was published in Spring 2020 by One World/Random House and Profile Books (UK). Minor Feelings was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, and earned her recognition on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list. She is also the author of poetry collections Engine Empire, published in 2012 by W.W. Norton, Dance Dance Revolution, chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Translating Mo'um.  Hong is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her prose and poetry have been published in the New York Times, New Republic, the Guardian, Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. 

You recently described coming to Berkeley as an “intellectual homecoming.” Could you say a little more about what UC Berkeley means to you as the site of this homecoming?  

I’m a California native by way of Los Angeles so that was partly my motivation for calling Berkeley an intellectual homecoming. But also, Berkeley has long been the mecca of Asian American excellence—a pantheon of scholars, writers, artists, and activists have attended or taught at Berkeley such as Theresa Cha, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jeff Chang, to name just a few. It’s where “Asian America” was first coined after all—as a call-to-arms—rather than an identity marker to stand for solidarity and anti-imperialism.

This semester you’re teaching a poetry workshop. I was really engaged by its course description, which takes off from the poet Alice Notley’s statement that “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against…everything.” How has this concept of disobedience shaped your own writing practice? And what does it mean for the space of the poetry workshop to accommodate a poetics and pedagogy of disobedience?

I was always transformed by poets who moved the fence posts on what was capable in the genre. These shapeshifters inspired me to be the same. But disobedience is not just about being formally disobedient but emotionally disobedient too. Workshop is a fickle ecosystem which could cause students to write defensively because they have a built-in audience who look and judge their poems. They write to impress and stop writing for themselves which is why I encourage students to be disobedient against their inhibitions and any perceived biases they might have on what a poem should and shouldn’t do. I also ask my students to read their peers’ poems reparatively which is essentially what Notley advocates for in her essay. She calls for a radical openness which she names as a kind of telepathy. It’s a manifesto that I hope permit my students to feel liberated to write what they are afraid to explore.

After your first three collections of poetry, what inspired your turn toward nonfiction and the writing of Minor Feelings? Did writing and publishing a work of nonfiction change how you thought about the relationship between writer and audience?

I became a mother which irrevocably changed my approach to writing. Previously, I saw myself as an outlier, a misfit; someone who was happily outside the American demographic as the alien poet. Once I became a mother, I felt more rooted to this country. Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” His quote resonated with me because my rootedness translated not to embracing American mythos but feeling entitled to my rage against the country. The election of Trump further solidified my change in perspective. Writing nonfiction, I thought about audience in a concrete and tangible way. When I wrote poems, I wrote for myself and strangers, to quote Gertrude Stein. To write the essay meant that I was questioning, critiquing, persuading—I was using language rhetorically which I don’t consciously do in poetry and because of that I was more aware of my audience. I wanted to write to people like me, people who could be my kin. As I became more confident in the form, and the book, my idea of kin grew more inclusive and bigger.

The subtitle of Minor Feelings is “An Asian American Reckoning,” and early in the book you write that “The paint on the Asian American label has not dried.” In 2020, in an interview with The Believer, you said you thought of the subtitle as “a way of announcing that there is a the general discourse on race, Asian Americans are still left behind. So this attempt to, in my own weird, poetic way, try to help fill in the gap.” Three years on from the publication of Minor Feelings, do you think that either the gap in discourse you referred to or consciousness of the label itself have altered in meaningful ways?

Yes—AAPI are more empowered, I think, especially among the younger generation, but there’s always the threat of regression, which is what happens after any time of perceived racial reckoning. The last seven years provoked massive protests because of George Floyd, because of Trump, because of the pandemic and the spike in anti-Asian hate, but there have also been rollbacks in racial equity, such as the ban on affirmative action which is unfortunately supported by a growing subset of AAPI, though it’s not the majority of AAPI as media would like everyone to believe. But it’s eye-opening to be in the West Coast, especially at UC Berkeley, where Asians make up 40 percent of the campus and to witness such a diversity of identities within—you could be an anarchist or poet or coder or all three.

Given the significance of stand-up comedy and Richard Pryor in Minor Feelings, I’m wondering if you see stand-up comedy as relevant to your own practice as a writer currently. Are you watching any stand-up these days?

Once I become fixated with a subject in a book, I retire it after I’m done writing the book. Writing about a subject is my way of curing myself of unhealthy obsessions, though I wouldn’t call my interest in standup unhealthy. Anyway, it’s less prevalent but it’s in my DNA to always use humor in my writing.

Do you have thoughts on how the current developments around AI are changing the space of the classroom and the writing produced in it? Is the writing of poetry, or your role as a professor and poet in a workshop, changed by these developments?

I just recently learned that my book of poems Engine Empire was used to train AI alongside 800,000 other titles. Ironically, this book of poems envisioned a dystopic future about AI. I find it disturbing how popular science fictional books that try to warn humanity about the future of technology end up being used by tech CEOs as a blueprint for innovation. I attribute this to a reading comprehension problem which is why the funding for humanities should not be cut!

Anyway, every single writer I typed in the search engine Atlantic was used to train AI. It’s violating considering the years writers spent toiling over a book that’s now blended into an algorithm to generate content customized to what readers think they want. This never leads to anything good. Look at how technology decentralized the media industry so that the news is now brought to readers catered to them via social media—it has led to an influx in disinformation. My role as a professor and poet in workshop hasn’t changed yet. I like to comfort myself in thinking that students who take poetry workshops want to write their own poems. But I need to learn more about AI and have made it my goal to do so at Cal where a lot of the pioneering research on AI is taking place.

Are there any projects or writing you’re currently working on that you’d like to share with the UC Berkeley community?

I’m working on a book of poems and a book of prose that explores motherhood, film, terrorism, the two Koreas, and the lasting effects of the Cold War on today’s geopolitics and economy.

Department of English