Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Interview with Meg Eden About Her Book Drowning in the Floating World

Meg Eden

I wore driftwood / & got dressed for the ocean."
- from "All Summer I Wore" by Meg Eden

(Interview was conducted via email in October 2020 by Nancy Chen Long.)

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Meg Eden's work is published or forthcoming in magazines including Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Crab Orchard Review, RHINO, and CV2. She teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, the novel Post-High School Reality Quest (Rare Bird Books, 2017), and the poetry collection Drowning in the Floating World (Press 53, 2020). She runs the Magfest MAGES Library blog, which posts accessible academic articles about video games. Find her online at or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.

Side note: Meg Eden is poetry guest editor for Issue 197 of Press 53’s Prime Number Magazine and will be reading submissions for that issue until November 9, 2020. Writers who are interested, please see the following link:

Overview of Drowning in the Floating World
"Drowning in the Floating World by Meg Eden immerses us into the Japanese natural disaster known as 3/11: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Relentless as the disaster itself, Eden seizes control of our deepest emotional centers, and, through insightful perspective, holds us in consideration of loss, helplessness, upheaval, and, perhaps most stirring, what do make of, and do with, survival. This poetry collection is also a cultural education, sure to encourage further reading and research. Drowning in the Floating World is, itself, a tsunami stone—a warning beacon to remind us to learn from disaster and, in doing so, honor all that’s lost."

Review of Drowning in the Floating World

Response to the Brother Who Wants to Move in After the Earthquake: 
by Meg Eden
(a poem from Drowning in the Floating World)

You are not welcome here.
You are contaminated.
You have radiation in your skin.
You breathed in that nuclear air.

You are contaminated;
a power plant lives in you now.
There’s already radiation in your skin,
and I can’t risk you rubbing off on me.

You carry that power plant inside you,
but we are genki here,
and I can’t risk you rubbing off on us.
We want to live—

We are genki here, but
he who mixes with vermillion turns red.
I want to live,
I don’t want to think about Fukushima.

Mixed with red ink, anything becomes red.
It can’t be helped.
I don’t want to think about Fukushima.
There are places for that sort of thing.

Shikata ga nai.
You breathed in that nuclear air.
There are places for that sort of thing, but
you are not welcome here. 

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NCL: Please tell us a little about your book Drowning in the Floating World and how it came to be. Some say that one of the primary difficulties a poet may have with a first full-length poetry manuscript is shaping it into a book, as opposed to of a collection of disparate poems. Drowning is solidly coherent with respect to theme. Did you set out to write a series of related poems, or was it something that unfolded as you went along? 

ME: Drowning in the Floating World is a collection about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima power plant disaster. It explores the literal destruction, as well as the idea of water, and how deeply rooted water is conceptually in Japanese language and mythology, this dual function of killing and sustaining life. The first poem was probably written shortly after the event—I don’t think it made it into the collection. I was haunted by the footage of 3/11, and as I went to Fukuoka that summer, I was disturbed by how normal everything seemed in the rest of Japan—how there was this devastation in part of the country, but everything else was going on as usual. That’s life, but it’s also shocking and troubling. I couldn’t stop thinking about the disaster, and over time the poems collected. The most recent poem(s) were a couple of rewrites once the collection was acquired—I remember the pantoum and “Town Hall” were both rewritten right before printing, and became stronger as a result.

I think once I had several poems about 3/11, I realized I was going to have a collection. When I write more than one poem about a thing, and those different poems are saying different things (and not just me rewriting the same poem), I tend to have some sort of collection, whether that be a chapbook or a full-length. At first, I set out to gather and create thematically similar poems. By playing with forms, I tried to diversify my perspective on the theme and flesh out gaps in the collection. Through feedback from some amazing readers, I saw how I could open up the collection and go beyond just 3/11 to water at large, and the idea of the floating world. I submitted it over and over, got rejections, and kept tinkering. It was a conscious process of making a full-length manuscript, but at the same time, it felt organic. I’ve tried to make collections happen before and they just didn’t. You can’t brute force it. So I think that combination of intent with natural rhythm was important for the collection to actually become a collection.

NCL: I’m intrigued regarding your use of Japanese language in these poems. For example, some of the poem titles contain Japanese words, cities, or characters in them. There are also Japanese words and phrases peppered throughout the collection. I couldn’t help but think of my Taiwanese mother and how she interjects Taiwanese or Mandarin in her sentences, a type of code-switching so to speak. Please share with us a bit about your use of Japanese in the collection and the impact of the Japanese language and culture on your writing. For example, how long did you live in Japan? Are any of your ancestors Japanese? Have any of your poems been published in Japanese journals or have you written any poems entirely in Japanese?

ME: I love this question! Code-switching is a natural part of speech, so it only makes sense to me for it to happen on the page. Some things just can’t be translated—and they shouldn’t have to be. Something is always lost in translation. As I wrote, I used the words that came to me, the ones that made the most sense. For example in “Town Hall” I wanted to recreate the visceral experience of the do not enter signs by using their exact language. In “Response to a Brother,” I use both shikata ga nai and its “translation,” “it can’t be helped.” Really, shikata ga nai means shikata ga nai. It’s such a common Japanese phrase, such a big part of the way of thinking in the culture, that using that exact language was critical to me. Interacting with Japanese kanji is such a visual and animated experience that sometimes I wanted to capture a taste of that richness on the page. Translating it into roman letters felt like it would cheapen it. Sometimes that was necessary, but especially with some of the titles, I wanted that visual element.

While I have not formally lived in Japan, Japan has always been a significant part of my life. My father has been working in Okinawa since I was in grade school. We would visit as a family, and I spent a summer there when I was in college. When I was in high school, my father was there every other month. I ate up everything I could get my hands on, growing up: Japanese mythology texts, J-pop CDs, language courses, manga. It’s hard to explain—I guess I haven’t written enough poems about it yet—but Japanese language and culture just make sense to me. There is a system, a kata, a way of doing things. You know what to expect from others, and what’s expected of you. I love the feeling of the language in my mouth—it’s like rich chocolate. In America, I’m always anxious, never knowing what to expect from others. Americans are so unpredictable sometimes. But in Japan, even though they certainly have their own problems as a country, I have a sense of relief at the expectations—for example, I know the man at the kombini will wrap my croquette the same way every morning! My husband spent several years as a teenager growing up in Japan, so it’s a common closeness for us. I think of it as our heart-home. I do not have Japanese ancestry that I know of. It’s interesting though—my grandfather was based in Hokkaido during the Korean war. Before he passed, he expressed how much he loved it there, how much the culture made sense to him, and how he almost stayed. We both carried that love in our blood.

Japanese language and culture have had a huge impact on my writing—not to mention how I think and see the world. I have not yet written poems entirely in Japanese, though in my MFA program, I took an amazing translation course with Michael Collier, and spent the semester focused on translating poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa. That was an incredible experience. Studying his work really exploded all these possibilities on the page for me. His language is so accessible yet clever, and his images so shocking. He also translates the Peanuts comics into Japanese! There’s this magical realism to his work, which I suppose is very Japanese, very Shinto—the lack of boundaries between the mythological and the everyday. This has hugely shaped and influenced my perspective for Drowning. As a Christian, I really resonate with this, as I also believe that the spiritual and the everyday have no boundary; they are interconnected and impact each other. For my writing, this magical realism aesthetic gave me an entrance into disaster, being able to imagine and create and open a little window of light into a situation that can seem so relentlessly heartbreaking.

NCL: I read most of the poems as persona poems—i.e., as a distinct person who is not the poet—as poems in the voices of those who have suffered in the catastrophes, for example “Radium Girls”, “I Ask My Mother What It’s Like, Living at the Bottom of the Ocean,” and Response to the Brother Who Wants to Move in After the Earthquake:,” which is printed at the beginning of this interview. How did you approach writing the persona poems? For example, did you conduct any interviews of survivors? or perhaps had a particular person in mind? On the other hand, some of the poems, such as “Corpse Washing,” come across as possibly something experienced by the poet-speaker. I’m curious, were you in Japan for the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster? Tell us a bit about your research process for this book.

ME: Many of the persona poems were rooted in interviews I read online, or videos of footage I saw. Others were inspired by that Shuntaro Tanikawa brand of magical realism, as well as Patricia Smith’s collection Blood Dazzler. When I first read that book in school, it blew me away. I was so inspired by all the creative perspectives she brought in, and the voice she gave Hurricane Katrina. As I fleshed out the collection, I wanted to explore the fantastical angles—like the idea of living in the bottom of the ocean, or the voice of a town hall or a doll that was lost in the ruins and unable to get a proper burial.

I was not in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami, but I was in the country that summer. Some poems were from personal experience; for example “原爆 – Atom” was a sort of response to my visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “In Tokyo, three months after the earthquake” was in response to my time in Tokyo during 2011. “Corpse Washing” was a response to the incredible 2008 film Departures (おくりびと).

I think my research process was basically absorbing everything I possibly could about the disaster. Surrounding myself with it. At some point, reading and writing and researching, it becomes more than just distant facts, but a visceral feeling. I remember being in a theater with a preview for the movie San Andreas Fault in the middle of the research process, and there was a scene of water flooding into a room. I almost started screaming and sobbing in the middle of the theater. All I could think of was Rikuzentakata. That it wasn’t just a movie; this was something that people lived through, that really happened in Japan. How can we let ourselves forget?

NCL: What is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you?

ME: It’s so funny, because I think this has changed over time, as the collection has been out in the world and I’ve done readings. I seem to always want to read “Town Hall.” This was one of the last poems to come together for the collection. I completely rewrote it when the collection was acquired. Something about the voice of the town hall, its anger, its insistence on not being forgotten—I’m haunted by it. As we are increasingly talking about the injustices in our country, I keep thinking about the Town Hall’s anger, it’s refusal to fall or be forgotten. There is so much suffering, so many people suffering that we completely forget. The town hall reminds me to never forget, and to speak out.

This poem is inspired by the town hall in Rikuzentakata, which I believe was the only building left standing after the tsunami. In my research, I was reading about tsunami stones, stones marking where previous tsunamis hit—physical warnings to future generations of where to not build your homes. Unfortunately, just enough time passes between disaster for us to forget. If we listened to the tsunami stones, if we did not build below them, so many lives would have been saved in 3/11. The town hall is a kind of tsunami stone, standing to remind us of what has happened, what can come again, how we should not become complacent and forget.

Town Hall

Watching the town resurrect,
I remain unfixed,
mouth filled with birds.

My eyes are dusty & split
down the middle; my bowels
washed in mud. A car

rests in my intestines.
The dog in my chest
just delivered puppies.

I’ve been given many names:
Do not enter,

Tsunami, you may have
erased my neighbors,
but still I remain!

I defy you, Tsunami.
I defy you, Town.
I will always remember

should you mistakenly
forget. Here I stand,
a new tsunami stone.

NCL: When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you?

ME: Poetry was what my friends were doing in middle school, so of course I conformed! But I got hooked. Up to that point, my interest was in the visual arts. I wanted to be a cartoonist, or a manga-ka. But I found that poems gave me another way to express my thoughts and process the world around me—one that I could do with or without a whole set of artist’s tools. I have had the privilege of having so many amazing mentors to encourage me. The first was my mother. A history teacher in middle school told me I was a good writer. In community college, I was so blessed to have an instructor work closely with me and believe in my poems. I think that was the spark that made me become serious about this whole poetry thing. 

NCL: You also have a fiction book out. A number of years back, at an AWP panel on the poetry-prose dynamic, some of the panelists said they found it difficult to smoothly switch between poetry and prose. One panelist said it was, in part, because she wanted to break or control the line. Another said it was because of the compression of language that his poetry seeks. Of course, some of the panelists said they had no difficulty going from one to the other. What is your experience with switching between genres? Do you prefer one over the other?

ME: I used to THINK I was good at switching between the genres, but many of my poems should’ve been novels, and my novels poems! So I think for me the difficulty has been based on content—what container does this content need? Is it a whole story? Or is it a brief moment? I think recently, I’ve been drawn more toward prose, and haven’t written as many poems. But there are seasons. For a while, all I wanted to do was write poems. Now, all I want to do is write stories. This summer, I wrote a novel in verse, which merged the two sensibilities—and that was so much fun. I definitely want to do more of that. 

NCL: I see you teach creative writing. What is one thing that you impress upon your students with respect to poetry?

ME: That it’s for them—that it can be for them if they want it. For so many students, poetry equals Shakespeare, or poetry equals “only for smart people” (whatever that means). I want every student to be able to see poetry as an outlet for their own voice. That there’s a place at the table for everyone. And for my intro students, I want them to see that poetry can be fun—when I learned poetry could be fun, that was everything 

NCL: What are you working on now?

ME: I just finished a middle grade novel in verse, which was so fun. I’m also working on a contemporary young adult novel. I’ve not been focusing much on poetry, but every now and then a poem will pop out.

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Purchase Drowning in the Floating World

Find Meg Eden online:

- Website:

- Twitter: @ConfusedNarwhal.

All poems printed or quoted in this post © Meg Eden Drowning in the Floating World (Press 53, 2020)

Nancy Chen Long is the author of two books of poetry: Wider than the Sky (Diode Editions, 2020), selected for the Diode Editions Book Award,  and Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), which won the Tampa Review Poetry Prize. Her work has been supported by a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing fellowship and the Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award. You’ll find her recent work in The Southern Review, Copper Nickel, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She  works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.

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