We're excited to announce that Emma Miao, a poet from Vancouver, BC, is the winner of the 2020 Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize! Her poem “Rabbits on the Balcony” will appear in the Spring 2021 issue of The Fiddlehead. Born in 2004, she was commended in the 2019 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, won the 2021 Frog Hollow Press Chapbook Contest, and has been published in numerous literary journals. Check out editorial assistant Eliza Ives' interview with Emma about her prize-winning poem!
Thank you again to our judges Canisia Lubrin, Jenna Albert and Adèle Barclay and to all who entered the poetry contest!
An Interview with Emma Miao:
Editorial assistant Eliza Ives talked to Emma Miao about her prize-winning poem over email in March 2021.
Eliza Ives: Emma, congratulations on winning The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Prize for Poetry. I can see why the competition judges selected “Rabbits on the Balcony.” It’s a dense, evocative, and intriguing work that rewards repeated readings. How did the poem begin for you? Do you remember which phrases or lines came first?
Emma Miao: This poem started at the end, like many stories. I was intrigued by the linguistic intimacy of “lives” and “lies.” The poem’s end line, which became the scaffolding for and the crest of the poem, holds that double meaning: “we are the vessels of so many lies.” I was also fascinated by the image of the rabbit. Rabbits are devastating animals. They’re too docile, too trusting. I had a vision of their legs “bounding into a cable-bed snare” without a worry in the world. This combination of trust and beauty is dangerous, but also strangely alluring, attracting hunters of all kinds. I wanted to capture that helplessness in the line “I am a good daughter to suckle sweat, drudge in the trefoiled frost.” And finally, bridging the gap from rabbits to daughters, I wanted to explore how humans, especially women, justify evil if it’s committed by someone we love. One day, as I was walking along Jericho beach, I came up with the image of the Yangtze, glittering gold, rushing into a body, especially the body of a girl, and the poem just cascaded from there.
EI: That’s fascinating! The poem’s ending really struck me and is, I think, one of its great strengths. I love the direct address to the reader in the imperatives of the three penultimate lines, and the final line, a declarative, provides a nice shift in register, bringing a sense of conclusion. It also alludes to the beginning: in the poem’s first line the Yangtze floods the speaker’s veins, and in the final stanza she states: “Give me a river and I will swallow it whole.” Furthermore, the gold of the river reappears, pictured by the speaker as the colour of the sky. These shifts seem to suggest a development in agency.
There’s so much of interest that we could talk about. First, I want to ask you about the poem’s use of colour, which I found very effective. To what extent was colour significant to you while composing the poem? Were there any particular influences behind the choice of gold, white, ivory, maroon, and red?
EM: Colour, particularly the colour red, plays a central role in many of my poems. It is a recurring motif in my chapbook “Geography of Mothers” (Frog Hollow, 2021) and continues to inspire my work and outlook. Red is such a distinct colour and it captures so much of myself and my history, physically and abstractly: Chinese culture, blood, womanhood, war, ambition, loyalty. In “Rabbits on the Balcony,” red provides the intensity that facilitates the emotional spike, whereas gold shifts from a bottled shimmer inside her to something she discovers; a weapon she can yield. In the end, the colour is a refuge of power and calm for the speaker.
I like thinking about how different readers come to the poem with their own connotations of those colours you mentioned — gold, white, ivory, maroon, red. It’s like reader creates the poem alongside me, uncovering newfound and perhaps even unintentional layers of the poem. For example, for me, gold conjures images of Chinese migrants panning for gold, which recontextualizes the desperation in the speaker and her family. I think part of the magic of poetry is that colour can be a vessel for the reader to use his/her past experience to connect with the poem.
Colours also helped me articulate connections between disparate concepts or objects. The colour white is both the daughter’s belly and the snow outside — that link allowed me to allude to the coldness of an unwanted thing inside a belly. Ultimately, colour, for me, transforms objects into motifs and helps with continuity throughout a piece.
EI: Yes, I agree! And “Rabbits on the Balcony” generates powerful and surprising links in a number of other ways — particularly through the verbing of nouns and its line breaks: “I goosebump the rain-stained balcony,” or “Fingerprint my eyes,” for example. And: “eye-locked with the crown / of the knife,” or “Good daughters spoon silence / into their mouths.” The poem’s diction is generally understated, but its language feels very muscular and tight because the words are used and composed in unconventional and unexpected ways. Each line is measured, precise, and has a very deliberate feel. I’m wondering how long it took you to produce a finished version of “Rabbits on the Balcony”? And did you use any particular compositional techniques or methods of revision?
EM: Stephen Fry said, “we are not nouns, we are verbs.” I think verbing is one of the most effective ways to achieve surprise in a poem. Every noun has active qualities, can be fluid, can shift in its paradigm within and without the canvas of the poem. So when the speaker “goosebumps the balcony,” “goosebump” offers a more precise account of a speaker’s experience than, perhaps, “feels goosebumps.” When I’m revising, I also consider the quality of the noun’s movement: in “flux / herb water down my throat,” water is a fluid, oscillating thing in someone’s mouth, so “flux” fits, even if it isn’t expected. These surprising combinations also let me as the poet be led by, rather than lead, the poem.
In terms of other revision cues, I always keep in mind the sound of each word. The x sound in “flux” pairs well, I think, with the silent h in “herb.” You don’t want two words that trip each other up or make the reader tongue-tied. And finally, Anne Carson said, “Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else... They are the latches of being.” Don’t waste opportunities to create precision using adjectives: “trefoiled frost,” “shredded maroon.”
I also owe many punchlines in my poems to lineation. For example, “I am a good daughter / to suckle sweat” is an oxymoron, and the line break creates even more opposition and surprise. My absolute favourite line break in this poem, however, is “The rain turned gold. I stick out my tongue. The flecks taste / like rabbits.” There’s a development of the rain as this cold, disparate thing, away from the house, speaker — something for the speaker to return to when she’s hopeless. And now it pays off, since the speaker’s turned feral and desperate, the rain’s turned to rabbits; she’s lost her last coping mechanism. That line didn’t come until the third or fourth revision, and since I count syllables (this is a double sonnet, so 10-13 per line), I had to maneuver some words to make the break work.
Speaking of the double sonnet format, I didn’t realize this was one until days before submitting the poem. Sonnets are my favourite form, so I’m always on the lookout for 14 or 28 lines with a pair/dichotomy theme running through, and this was one such piece. I think having the formal element here helps add a fresh dimension above the linguistic composition itself. I wrote “Rabbits on the Balcony” over a month, and the first draft looked nothing like the finished version. After having a framework, I revisited it every few days, slowly improving, whittling small sections. Interestingly, the poem was called “Hunt” up until the day I submitted it to The Fiddlehead.
EI: I want to ask about the pair/dichotomy theme that you mention and the line you’ve highlighted: “I stick out my tongue. The flecks taste / like rabbits.”
Like the formal strategies (verbing, which we’ve already discussed, and also metaphor: “The lamp beside my bed is stained with Father’s eyes.”), this line to me echoed the poem’s preoccupation with metamorphosis. The dichotomies it presents seem unstable: procreation and death; predator and prey; child and adult; body and natural world. Perhaps even good and evil? I read the poem as formally enacting the possibilities of transformation between opposing pairs.
Was metamorphosis a subject you intended to explore or evoke? The image of the lamp stained with eyes produces such a strong sense of disquiet. Can you say anything about where it originated?
EM: I certainly wanted to explore metamorphosis, specifically as survival. Throughout the poem, for the speaker, her parents, even the rain outside, there’s a de-evolution into the primal, some returning to the wild. This intrinsic shift gives her agency, even if bittersweet — the same agency Japan had after they industrialized in the Meiji Restoration, for instance. The newfound freedom changes the dynamic within the poem. What happens when prey becomes predator? Or when predator becomes prey? There is certainly a feeling of justice, but to what end. And can this agency be exploited? At the end of the day, who is the predator and who is the prey?
I like this idea of transformation into opposing pairs. There’s a line where the rain turns animal, and the speaker swallows the rain, becoming wild herself. The girl is barricaded, put on display within the house, but outside on the tiny balcony in the night-chilled air, she forgives herself. I think that says a lot about freedom and identity.
I think many of these dichotomies were enhanced or facilitated by the double sonnet form. The empty space between the sonnets acts as a canyon where change mutilates and takes flight. I didn’t reach a conclusion in my poem about metamorphosis, and in many ways, I don’t think I ever will. But I always appreciate a story where the “victim” takes the reins of and steers his/her own ending. Metamorphosis is never the goal, the goal is to survive, and change comes along the way.
The “lamps, stained with eyes” line was originally “curtains, stained with eyes” (which was a treasure trove hiding in the draft of another poem). That poem imagined a Chinese household in Nanjing, 1937, under the Japanese occupation and ensuing massacre. In Nanjing, soldiers looked into the houses’ windows to see if any women were inside, so every family lived in constant fear — even of breathing, of moving. The Japanese had infiltrated without coming inside — their eyes permanently “stained” the curtains. I thought it was an apt image in the context of these family politics, too.
EI: Thanks Emma, all your answers have been so generous and illuminating. Lastly, I want to ask you about your current projects and future plans. Could you say anything about what you’re working on at the moment and any work that is forthcoming? And, as you’re such a young poet, I’m curious to know if you have any particular aspirations in poetry or literature?
EM: Thank you for asking! My debut chapbook “Geography of Mothers” recently won the Frog Hollow Press Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming 2021. So these next few months will be full of meetings, revisions, and signings, and I could not be more thrilled. When it’s published, you can visit my website or Frog Hollow’s to place an order. In addition, I have several individual poems forthcoming in Permafrost Mag, Cosmonauts Avenue, Honey Literary, and HOBART. I’m also looking to edit poetry in journals — if you have an open call, let me know! As for the future, I do intend to study English in college, and I’d love to find other opportunities to develop my writing and meet other writers and editors. One day, I hope to publish a full-length collection of poetry and perhaps a novel in verse.
To read more of Emma Miao’s work, visit her website: https://emmamiao.com/.
Find Rabbits on the Balcony in The Fiddlehead Spring issue no. 287!