I have this really spiritual poet friend who told me that all writing has to be contrition. It’s totally worthless if it doesn’t prepare you to embrace and love the world again. That’s really intense, but I think it was true for me. Those letters were really contrition.
I was always anxious about calling it a book, because that makes it feel instrumental, and I didn’t want it to feel like that. So I don’t think I acknowledged that it was a book until now. It’s uncomfortable that there’s a price on it. I don’t want to say defensively to everyone that I’m sharing the royalties with Patrick and his daughter, but I do. Trying to transform these feelings of guilt was all selfishly part of my own spiritual thing — “journey” sounds cheesy, but it was. The book feels too much like an object to capture that journey. It’s just a vessel for contrition. It could have been a song, except I can’t sing.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I really didn’t expect how quick and extraordinary Patrick’s growth would be, without much help at all. I gave him pen and paper, and a lot of books, and a lot of personal attention. When he first started out, his letters to his daughter were just a repeated apology: “I’m sorry I’m not there for you. I’m sorry I messed up.” But by the end of those seven months, he was writing these intricate and complex poems to her. They became prose poems, where he’s picturing her listening to the sound of trees and canoeing down the Mississippi. He would tell her lines of poems he really loved.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
It’s embarrassing for me to talk about contrition, because it’s self-focused, as if the thing that really matters is my sense of responsibility and not who Patrick is. But the book was going to be this rousing exposé of conditions of inequality in the Delta, about education and criminal justice and all these things that are wrong. I wasn’t going to write so personally about Patrick and me; that was going to be almost an aside. But then I realized that I would just be hiding myself, and hiding behind the analysis. And if you hang out with me, you know I don’t do that. I wanted to place myself directly in this relationship that is very unequal, in which one person can leave and the other can’t. And it’s hard to be measured, to not sound too self-focused but also acknowledge that that’s the dynamic. I also wanted to put an Asian-American person and African-American person in the same room, because we don’t see that very often. What connects these two people? And can poetry and books bring them together at all?
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
I have never been so happy to see a prominent person who’s Asian-American as when I saw Jeremy Lin rise up to the top with the Knicks. I didn’t realize how badly I had missed it until it happened, how I’d been longing for someone who looked like my dad or my brother to be at center stage. He’s amazing. Basketball is a quintessentially American space, and it’s so exciting to see Lin in that. When I saw Spike Lee wearing his jersey, I just wanted to sing. I grew up in western Michigan, with very few Asian-Americans. It made me really eager to not stand out. I was really shy, I didn’t raise my hand very often. And so much of doing creative work is a willingness to be visible, and Jeremy Lin gave a lot of us that permission.
Persuade someone to read “Reading With Patrick” in 50 words or less.
It’s an intimate story about the failure of the education and criminal justice systems and the legacy of slavery; about how literature is for everyone, how books connect people, and the hope that with enough openness and generosity we can do the hard work of knowing each other and ourselves.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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