Old Stories Made New: Rob Taylor Interviews David Ly
Surrounded by white wolves,
I plunge a hand into the alpha’s mouth
and rip out its tongue.
The rest scatter in whimpers.
It’s not long before I begin to tear at myself
from fear of what I’m becoming,
crawl into the forest to hide
under a blanket of shimmering, silver moths.
from Mythical Man
(Palimpsest Press, 2020).
Reprinted with permission.
David Ly is the author of the poetry collection Mythical Man (Anstruther Books, 2020) and the chapbook Stubble Burn (Anstruther Press, 2018). His poetry has appeared in PRISM international, Arc Poetry Magazine, The /temz/ Review, carte blanche, and elsewhere. He is the Poetry Editor of This Magazine and sits on the Editorial Collective of Anstruther Press.
Rob Taylor: I love your poem “Boy,” especially its leaps and surprises from couplet to couplet. Could you talk about the poem: how its central images came to you, and how you got it into its final physical shape?
David Ly: The images in “Boy” are probably among the strongest that I’ve come up with. I don’t know when and how they came to me, but I think near the beginning of writing poems for this book, an image of a boy hiding under moths just rooted in my mind (and this was even before we titled the book). I almost became obsessive over him. Who is he? Why is he hiding? I knew something had happened to him and he was scared, and certainly angry. Writing this short poem was a way of me trying to flesh out this character, almost (re)introduce myself to him. Even after finishing it, I still think about him and continue to flesh him out as a character in more of my writing. There is something special to me about this little boy and I hope I can keep writing about him.
As for the poem’s final physical shape, I just looked back in my editing records of this poem, and it hasn’t really changed much from its initial draft! I think the reason for this was that because it was such a vivid image for me, I just wrote it out with no fancy formatting in order to get the character out before me in a way that was easy for me to see and understand. It is such a clear image for me, I probably wanted the formatting to present the poem in a very easy way for people to read.
RT: Mythical Man is divided into four sections, each of which contains one of four poems entitled “Mythical Man,” which serve to tether the book together. The book is also filled with “mythical men,” from the moth boy to mermen to marble statues to the mythological transformation that takes place in the book’s closing lines. At what point in the development of the book did “mythical man” become its unifying theme? Did the title poems bring forward the theme, or did the theme lead to the poems, or both?
DL: I came up with the title “Mythical Man” about halfway through editing the poems with Jim. I remember messaging him at like 5 AM with just “MYTHICAL MAN” and we both instantly agreed that was it. Prior to that, we knew the book was going to be in multiple parts, so when the title came to me, it just made sense to have different kinds of “mythical men” throughout the book. The title sort of unified everything I was coming up with. I knew I was really indulging my imagination writing these poems about identity, belonging, etc., and in a weird sort of way, titling it with the word “mythical” gave me permission to imagine more, make-believe more that, in a way, spoke to very real topics. The title poems did feel like they furthered the theme. They pushed my writing to keep unpacking ideas of manhood, masculinity, identity, etc. Especially “Mythical Man II.” That one I am very surprised we included in the book. It’s this small poem that somehow scares me (still). And I don’t like reading it aloud for readings and I probably won’t ever!
I did reach a block after titling the book, though. I remember putting myself in the “mythical” box too much and forcing myself to create poems that so obviously spoke to the theme(s). But I think I caught myself early with this and then started putting less pressure on myself. Writing started to feel more natural and fun again, which was when I wrote poems like “Walking Together at the End of the World” that ends the book with those fun closing lines.
RT: It’s a tricky balance—gathering a book around certain themes without programmatically writing towards them—but I think you managed it well.
One such theme in the book is the intersection of homophobia and anti-Asian racism: both moments in which the two converge in our broader culture (i.e. daily life), and more intimate moments in which one bigotry undermines the safety of a world that’s free from the other (racism in queer spaces, homophobia in Asian spaces). In other words, these poems perpetually challenge the idea of various spaces being “safe.”
DL: Exactly! The book challenges ideas of what the narrator thinks is safe. The queer community (online and off) is lauded for being a “safe space,” which isn’t actually true: There are pockets of danger with different forms of discrimination. There are also moments of intimacy where it should feel safe, and it’s not. It’s one of the reasons why I am so happy with the cover, because the snake really gives this sense of danger and even though it evokes some curiosity, you’re still a bit weary. After reading this book, I think about safety in regards to maybe how guarded I am, and maybe how it makes me a bit too uptight?
RT: I’m glad you mentioned the cover! In your own interviews you conduct with others, you like to ask other poets about their book covers (to Tess Liem, you said “I feel like not enough interviews cover (hehe) a book’s look.”) And you got to it here before I could even bring it up. Was the cover always going to be a snake?
DL: I’ve always had a fascination with animals, especially reptiles and marine life, and that sort of imagery found its way into my poems so I am very grateful that I got to draw upon it for cover ideas and suggestions. From the beginning, I knew I wanted a snake for the cover. It just made sense to me to have a snake convey the sexiness of the poems, how they peel back layers on an identity. There is also just something about snakes, to me, that is enticing. But in this, like, weird dangerous way, that’s not dangerous enough to warrant complete fear.
RT: You were lucky to be able to take that vision to Kate Hargreaves, who’s designed so many striking book covers.
DL: Kate did an excellent job with the cover. Working with her made the experience so great. The finished cover is pretty much what she came up with, and all I asked for were different colouring options. When I saw the words “Mythical Man” in pink, I knew that was it. It looked so cool set against that emerald-y teal. I think, overall, the cover intensifies the reading experience of the book. Like I said, there is something about snakes that is enticing and a bit symbolic of sexiness. Paired with the title referencing “myth,” the cover also plays with the idea of the reptilian skin being something else besides a snake as well, something magical. I think it is a perfect preface to what the book holds. Even the end pages of the book are this translucent, milky paper, which I wanted because to me it resembled shed snakeskin. Basically, book design to me is very important to the reading experience!
RT: When it comes to considering a reader’s experience, some of your poems seem directed to particular audiences. For instance, you repeat “this poem is not exotic / this poem is not exotic” three times in the poem “Nice to Meet You.” That feels like it must be aimed at someone “outside” your context, likely straight and/or white. Did you have a particular reader in mind in writing Mythical Man, and if so did that reader change from poem to poem?
DL: There are many poems in Mythical Man that can be read like they’re aimed at a certain someone “outside” my context, but I would hope they aren’t all read like that. Instead, I hope they’re seen as more of a commentary on what me, a person of colour, experiences, especially from white people (gay or straight). That said, I think the reader I had in mind for this book was just someone who wasn’t me! I want someone to read these poems and see what it is sometimes like for a queer person of colour to navigate the world.
RT: Do you think it’s possible to write about race and sexuality in a way that speaks to everyone across one or both of those divides? Is that even desirable?
DL: I think it is definitely possible to write about race and sexuality in a way that speaks to everyone. But I wouldn’t say I “desire” this—it’s more of a hope and experience where I just tell myself I do the best I can to capture how I experience my race and sexuality and convey this to readers. At the end of the day, we are all human and even though it’s hard, why shouldn’t it be possible for us to understand someone who is of another race or sexuality? I think we all just want to feel like we belong and are heard!
RT: That sounds right to me, that you don’t “try” to speak to everyone, but are still hopeful that your story might reach everyone. Your poems certainly are reaching people. Speaking of points of connection, a number of the poems in Mythical Man involve, or take place on, dating apps (two of the poems in Mythical Man contain quotes from Grindr). Did it feel at all strange or anachronistic to write about a digital space in a print book? Does writing in a more “traditional” way about a very modern form of communication allow you a different perspective on it? Do I sound one-hundred years old for even wondering over these questions?
DL: You only sound roughly 78 for even wondering over these questions. It definitely did not feel anachronistic to write about digital spaces in a print book because I write from my experiences and being who I am, the digital space(s) where I exist are just an integral part of my existence whether I like it or not, but I also am very much a print book reader. So putting the two together wasn’t strange at all. I do feel it strange that people find it a talking point that my poems are drawn from things like dating apps and other digital things. It’s just the world I/we exist in! So it feels right and comfortable to write about them in my poems.
I don’t know if writing about modern forms of communication in a more “traditional” way gives me a different perspective on it. If anything, writing poetry about digital spaces and how we exist in them makes me slow my thinking down more and reflect more on how I (and others) exist in places like Twitter, Instagram, Grindr, etc. And I think that slow-thinking about this allows me to write sharper poems.
RT: I’m sorry I’m so old, David…
Your debut chapbook, Stubble Burn, was published only two years ago (when I was 76!), and by the same publisher as Mythical Man: Jim Johnstone (Jim runs both Anstruther Press and Palimpsest Press’ Anstruther Books imprint). It was surprising to me, then, to see how different the two are. Though both books speak to similar themes, a number of poems in the chapbook don’t appear in the book, the sequencing of the two is very different, and even the book’s “cover animal” has transformed from beetle to snake! Could you talk about the mix of continuity and change that took you from Stubble Burn to Mythical Man? How did that particular process influence the final product of the new book?
DL: Thank you for picking up on how different the two collections are! It makes me happy to hear that, because I worked hard with Jim to make sure that Mythical Man was different, making it feel like an expansion of the world and themes I dove into with Stubble Burn.
It’s funny, “transformation” is something readers pick up on and it’s something I wasn’t quite going for, but it’s neat to see that people find it in the work. I think this is maybe because I wasn’t the person writing Stubble Burn as I was when putting together Mythical Man. The poems are all really drawn from my experiences, so it makes sense that there is a sense of transformation. The beetle had to turn into a snake! If allowed, and if things go well in my writing, I have ideas on what the animal for my next collection could be.
Including some Stubble Burn poems (“Stubble Burn,” “For the No Rice, No Spice Kinda Guy,” for example) in Mythical Man was a fun way to call back to my earlier work, I guess, to show the breadth of what has happened since then. In the end, including old work with new work produced a collection that I think sincerely spoke to the theme of myths and identity. It called back to what I started with, then showed what I’ve created since. What are myths, if not just old stories that are told with some details added here and there to create something new?