I’m a writer sun, poet rising, painter moon, an interview with: Larissa Pham
The author of Pop Song pronounces interlocuter correctly
“It’s always seemed so unfair to me that I could write paragraphs and paragraphs and yet all that could be felled by a song. Writing to me seems to be a kind of playacting—a gesture that dances around the feeling, which cannot be held in words. I just want to make you feel.”
— Larissa Pham
“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.”
— Walter Pater
While I was procrastinating writing this intro, I went to the bookstore Human Relations. Thumbing through the art books, I was attracted to a thin volume by the painter Josef Albers— his 1963 handbook, Interaction of Color.
Albers, in the intro to his book, writes, “In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”
No way of communicating is without its faults. Even when we use le mot juste, the perfect word Flaubert attempted to capture, we risk being misunderstood. “[T]hey are tools, imperfect,” Pham writes of words in the essay “Dark Vessel,” one of the 11 pieces that compose Pop Song: Adventures in Art & Intimacy, out on Catapult now.
When communicating in any way, it’s necessary to make concessions. Larissa makes a similar point about photography, one of the mediums—along with painting—that makes up her artistic practice. She writes, “To turn the camera one way is a decision not to turn it the other. To turn the camera on a subject is to subject it to your interpretation of the truth.” An autobiography told through essays that critically engage art and attempt to explicate feelings, Pop Song’s drive to be understood is personal.
But understood by whom? The reader is an obvious choice, but I believe Pham’s mission in writing this book is to understand herself. Drawing on writers such as Leslie Jamison, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Roland Barthes, Rebecca Solnit—all of whom are referenced in the text—Larissa finds lessons in her own grief and suffering. She’s not masochistic (as she tells me below); instead, she's working hard on the unending project of growing, which, when done correctly, offers nuggets of wisdom. Larissa never acts haughtily. It sounds like she’s gaining new insights right alongside the reader. “I’ve never liked the self-help books where the writer comes across as holier than thou, already healed and already recovered,” she writes.
Larissa shares deeply, unsparingly, both her story and her lessons. If we understand her right, we can learn a thing or two.
Below, Larissa Pham discusses art shows, the reception of her book, and the pressure to get it right the first time.
Me: How’s the book promotion circuit been going…
Larissa: [sighs deeply]
Me: ...it seems very busy.
Larissa: It’s been busy. I don’t know. I don’t know how anyone’s done it. I’ve done one event per week since launch. It hasn’t even been a month since the book came out, but I’m already so tired. It’s been fun. All of the events have been really fun. I was really lucky to have such great interlocutors. (I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly.)
Me: That’s right, that’s right.
Larissa: Last night I did a Twitch stream with my friend Bijan [Stephen] and we played this game that I play. It’s been fun.
Me: Are you a big gamer?
Larissa: I became one during the pandemic. I wasn’t before. And it’s really just one game that I play, which is called Genshin Impact. It’s a mobile game. You can also play it on PC, but I don’t have a gaming PC. It’s been a fun outlet aside from writing and thinking about the pandemic.
Me: Mhm. Is it fun having people ask you all these questions and talking about your book? Or, do you never wanna see Pop Song again?
Larissa: It’s a little bit of both. It’s funny. I haven’t read it in its entirety in a while—like, since the last time I turned in copy edits—so when someone reads a quote to me, I’m a little surprised. I’m like, “Oh yeah, I wrote that. That sounds like something I wrote.” I’m also in school right now. I’m in a grad program for fiction so my brain has been in that mode, which has been really nice just to have something else to think about. But anyone who’s asked questions has come to the text with such a generosity and such a thoughtfulness that I just feel really grateful. I have a really wonderful readership that’s super generous with me and I feel very thankful for that.
Me: Yeah. I watched the YouTube video of a stream you did, the one with the compiler of the kink collection, I forget what her name is.
Larissa: Oh yeah, Reese [aka R.O. Kwon], yeah. For the Asain American Writers’ Workshop?
Me: Yes, yeah. I was reading along while you were reading the selection from the camera part [“Camera Roll (Notes on Longing)”] and I noticed that there were some minor changes in the text. Do you continue to correct the text as you go along?
Larissa: The version that I read from at the workshop is actually a mix of an older draft with some newer stuff. But it’s a cut-down version of the chapter to fit into an eight to 10-minute reading span. The text that you have as an advanced copy or if you get the hardcover, it’s going to be pretty similar. There are just a couple of changes like I got one date wrong. I had to change some stuff: I wanted to pull back on some things. But it’s, for the most part, the same. But when I do read, I will edit slightly just ‘cause when I’m reading something out loud, I’m like, “This is boring to me so it’s probably boring to the audience.” I miss reading in front of an audience because I miss that kind of collaborative energy where you can kind of feel what the audience is feeling.
Me: Yeah. I was just wondering because we think of books as being finite. Like, “OK, this is printed and this is the final word on it.” But someone who comes to mind, maybe an old-school reference: Walt Whitman updated Leaves of Grass upwards of 10 times. [Ed: During his lifetime, Whitman put out 9 editions of Leaves of Grass, the final of which is referred to as the “deathbed” edition.] He would just be like, “I have a better way of saying this now. Let’s put out a new edition.”
Larissa: Mhm. I don’t feel that way. I’m a little wary of getting so attached to an idea that I would want to return to it again when I could also do the same thing in a new form. I feel like if I have anything else I really want to say about anything in Pop Song, I might better accomplish it by writing another book and just moving along my thought process that way. I do really like seeing a writer evolve through multiple volumes and seeing where their ideas change. When I first wrote Fantasian, I thought maybe I would revisit it and do a full-length version because now it’s just a novella. But then I was like, “Actually, everything that said there is in the right form that it needs to be and if I want to revisit that, I can just write another book.”
Me: Yeah. I think you can also drive yourself crazy. Joanna Newsom mixed one of her songs like 50 times. [Ed: From The Guardian: “The final mix, which on previous albums had taken two weeks, sprawled to six months on Divers.”] [Ed: The Los Angeles Times claims it was four months.]
Larissa: There’s such pressure on debuts. There’s a lot of pressure on artists, and writers specifically, to have all your ideas in one spot. You put out something and it’s like, “This is my magnum opus. This is everything that I wish to say about this topic and it’s perfect. I’m putting it out and it’s unimpeachable and once it’s away from me, that’s it.” But it’s like no, you can always write a corrective. You can elaborate on something somewhere else. Putting such pressure on objects to encompass our entire intellectual lives is not great. If something does what you want it to do, I think that’s enough.
Me: Yeah. Totally. At the beginning of the pandemic I got into Herman Melville and I read Moby-Dick. I learned, after reading it, that originally he wrote these adventure novels [Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847)]. The first couple of books he wrote were huge successes and then he wrote Moby-Dick. I think he sold 300 copies. [Ed: 500 copies were printed and of that lot, only 300 sold in the first 4 months, according to Bilbio.com. It was not a success, but the figures were less grim than I stated: “Moby-Dick was out of print during the last four years of Melville's life, having sold 2,300 in its first year and a half and on average 27 copies a year for the next 34 years, totaling 3,215 copies.”] Nobody read it. And then it wasn’t until the 100th anniversary of his birth—he was already dead at that point, of course—that people started appreciating Moby-Dick.
Me: I dunno. It just makes me think of the cruelty of one’s legacy. Or, trying to get it right on the first book. In his case, it worked, but nobody reads those books anymore.
Larissa: Yeah. I don’t think we can ever control how we’re read in a contemporary sense and also thinking about longevity or futurity. We can come to something without intentions of how we want it to be received. The climate that we wish it to be received in. But we don’t really have a lot of control over those things. I don’t really know how I’ll be remembered. I hope I’ve written something that will last more than five years. It would be cool if people were still recommending it 10 years from now. I don’t know if that’s the case. A lot of books come out every year.
Me: Yeah. This is something I wonder a lot about. My friend, a few days ago, was telling me that the way the attention economy works is there are 10 books a year that you see everyone on the JMZ reading and they get pushed really big. But then it’s like how many people are reading those books a year or two later?
Larissa: It is interesting to think about. It’s funny. I had this feeling earlier this week like, “Oh, the publicity cycle is almost done with me,” and I felt a sense of relief where I was just like, “Oh, cool. I don’t have to feel on anymore.” But now, if someone’s posting my book or saying something nice about it, I’m more likely to retweet it. The heat is not on is so much that those moments feel a bit more...not that they weren’t authentic before, but more distant from that first flash of publicity. It was very thrilling and exciting to be in the spotlight, however briefly. But I’m also relieved that it’s passing.
Me: Do you read your press?
Larissa: Generally, yeah. [Hi Larissa, maybe?] I read all the reviews because I have a Google alert out on my own name, which I don’t know if I’d recommend. I’ve had it for years just to know what’s going on and I do read pretty much every review. I give the interviews so I don’t always re-read them. I’ll skim it. I’m interested to see how people frame things. I haven’t been surprised by anything, I guess.
Me: Are you attempting to learn something from those reviews or is it just a masochistic drive?
Larissa: I wouldn’t call it masochism. I got a mixed review from Library Journal and at first, it bothered me for like a whole day. And then I was like, “Their criticisms are fair. It’s just, we wanted this book to be different.” Me and the reader just didn’t agree on what they wanted the book to be and that’s OK. I can allow that. But for the most part, all of the reviews have been really, really incredible. They’ve been such deep and passionate reads of the text that I feel like the reviewers are really engaging with it on a deep and personal level. (I’ve said deep like three times this sentence.) That is very moving to me because it means that I did something right—even if it was just for these people—and I really appreciate that. It feels very special. Having been a reviewer myself, I like seeing those moments in the text where the personality of the reader comes to the surface.
Me: There’s this quote in Pop Song, where you were worried you’d be misunderstood. [“That’s something I’ve always worried about: that I keep making things that don’t mean what I want them to mean.”] It seems like people are meeting you where you’re at? They understand what you want to say?
Larissa: I think so. I think what I’ve seen has felt very special. And very honest and very earnest. I feel really, really grateful for that. I’m sure there are people for whom the book is not landing and for whom it’s not reaching them or they’re not interested in its project and that’s also OK. None of those people have seen fit to make that known to me so I’m OK with that, too. I do feel very lucky to have had such a deeply felt response.
Me: It seems like of the New York shows, every art installation or show you mentioned is also one I attended, which is a fun coincidence. It’s like, “Oh, I went to the Hujar show at the Morgan Library. I saw the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim.” Have you seen any good art since you finished the book?
Larissa: That’s a tough question because I finished it in pandemic and the world is just kind of beginning to reopen so I haven’t been seeing a lot of art. What have I seen? I did go to the Met before the Alice Neel show, although I’m planning to go, but there are some really beautiful, and sad, ( a good general combination for his work) [Gerhard] Richter paintings at the Met right now in this funny little rotunda that I hadn’t intended to go to. My boyfriend and I were trying to see some Caravaggios and some Dutch Masters because we were really interested in looking at something old and we ended up in this rotunda where the Richters were on view and it was really, really great to see them after this pretty historic year. I also saw some really great miniatures in the Roman artifacts collection, which I love spending time in. When I went to the Met, I was like, “I want to go look at things that I have always loved.” Like, I wanted to look at the rooms. There’s one recreated bedroom that’s there. And there’s also another recreated meditation room that’s really beautiful. I haven’t really seen anything contemporary since getting vaccinated.
Me: The Alice Neel show was really great. Me and my girlfriend waited in line for an hour just to see the space.
Larissa: I’m also totally lying. For some reason, I thought I saw this before the pandemic, but that’s not true. The New Museum show “Grief and Grievance” is really good.
Me: I’m going tomorrow.
Larissa: It’s incredible. I started from the top floor and then walked down. It was just great. The Julie Mehretu paintings are really beautiful, and I also think she has some at the Whitney. There’s a lot of good stuff coming up or on view right now. Scheduling times makes it really hard to be spontaneous. I’m not always good at planning like, “OK, tomorrow we’re gonna go to Chelsea and we’re gonna make all these little stops.” I think there are some Agnes Martin paintings at Pace. I think there might be a show at the Gagosian that looks interesting. I want to see Deana Lawson at the Guggenheim. There’s a lot of good stuff coming up for sure.
Me: There’s always good stuff. One of the public resources in New York City is being able to go to a gallery or a museum. Umm. I noticed that color seems to be really important throughout all the writing that you do. What’s your relationship with color? Have you noticed that?
Larissa: Yeah. It’s interesting because I don’t think of it as something that I pay special attention to. But, in this book, I wanted to be deliberate about the way that I was writing about color because I wanted it to be in dialogue with visual art. That meant using paint colors when I could. Sap green or phthalo blue, which is a recurring color in my work because it’s so eerie. I love phthalo blue. I think it’s such a beautiful pigment and it’s so strong, too. Red ochre. Cremnitz white. I think color pigments have associations and they have history and they also have material qualities and drawing on those qualities was a way of imbuing the language with another dimension, or so it felt. Writing about leaves being sap green. They are sap green as in trees have sap and that’s one connection. But sap green is a very specific shade and in my memory, I’m painting a picture so it’s like I’m synesthetically painting with text. And I was a painter so I do think about color and I do almost fetishistically write about painting and the stroke and want to bring that into the prose.
Me: Well, it’s definitely evident that you’re a painter. Also, I would it’s a poetic eye for detail. I always think of poets as being very attuned to color and nature and things like that. Do you think of yourself in a hierarchy? How would you rank poet, painter, writer? Do you think as one as being more essential than the others or do they all feed into one another?
Larissa: It’s interesting because when you frame it that way or when you asked that question, what popped into my head was the trajectory of people I have been in my life. My grandfather was a poet—it wasn’t his day job or anything, but he wrote poetry and he ended up publishing a couple volumes of Vietnamese language poetry when he was in the States. I always had a poetic sensibility when I was a kid. He was such a hero to me. Through my teens and into college, I considered myself a poet. I was interested in the crystallization and the condensed form and the way you could play with it. I wrote a lot of poetry in that time. When I was in college, I shifted to being a painter because I didn’t love how English classes and creative writing classes were taught at Yale. Nothing bad about it. It just didn’t really vibe with it at the time. But I loved being in the painting studio. I loved having a visual arts practice. It was such an amazing place to be a visual artist. The resources. I never had a studio space before. That was incredible to me. That was a place where that practice of mine really flourished. But then, after school, I didn't have a studio anymore and I had been writing steadily in my last year or two of school. Now, I’m primarily a prose writer. Having been so steeped in these various modes has completely influenced my prose, for sure. I’m very grateful for that. If I can rank them in any sense, I see myself as like...I’ll use an astrology metaphor. I’m a writer sun, poet rising, painter moon.
Me: Wow. That’s a great analogy, actually.
Larissa: I love using the big-three to talk about things. That feels right. Writer sun, poet rising, painter moon. That’s how I see those practices interacting.
Me: Do you engage with poetry and painting? Are those still active mediums for you?
Larissa: I write a poem once in a blue moon. I wish I wrote poems more often. I think it’s just so different from writing prose that I think that if I did want to write poetry again, I’d have to devote myself to it. And not write prose for a while because I think my brain might need to like completely shift modes. I have taught poetry and I do try and read a lot of poetry. I haven’t been reading as much as I should recently. I like knowing what’s going on and I like reading it, and I love teaching it. Even if it’s in a prose salutation, I think it’s always great to teach a little poetry. Painting, I don’t have an active relationship to making. There’s a brief moment where I had a studio in Sunset Park and I made a series of eight paintings based on photographs in my camera roll. And that was really fun. It was the first time I had painted in four years. I was really worried my hand was dead, but it was fine. It came back. I probably would have gotten pretty good at rendering things if I had kept up with it, but I couldn’t really afford to keep it. The primary way that I engage with painting now is just by looking at it. I think that’s an OK place to be.
Me: Yeah. Why not? It’s the only way I engage with painting.
Larissa: It’s a great way to engage with it.
Me: I was just thinking about another thing you said in the book about photographing one of your lovers, one of the defenses that you gave was taking back the male gaze. It reminded me a lot of John Berger. I was wondering if you’d ever engaged with his work before: The Ways of Seeing?
Larissa: Honestly, I should have read it more deeply. I’ve only read little excerpts. It’s actually a text that’s pretty foundational that I haven’t read in its entirety. [Ed: This is what they call “Gotcha Journalism.”] I probably shouldn’t be admitting to that.
Me: It’s OK. I’ve never read it. I watched the BBC show that the book’s based on. I recommend it. It’s really wonderful.
Larissa: Yeah. Yeah. He’s so great and so foundational to a lot of what I do so something to consider. But thinking about that line is funny because that’s what I said, but that’s not how I thought of it at all. Coming at it from a Laura Mulvey perspective [feminist film critic who coined the term the “male gaze” and popularized its use (though Berger first introduced the concept)], images of women in cinema. Like, “Oh, that’s the “male gaze” so to reverse the “male gaze” is the “feminine gaze.” What’s that look like?” It was precisely the time where a lot of the people around me were becoming awakened online and really drawn to social justice and that’s obviously not what my project was about. I think I admit to that lie, as well, in the text.
Me: Yeah, you do.
Larissa: It made sense at the time to be like, “It’s about taking agency back.” But, no, I just wanted to take pictures of people that I was in love with who didn’t love me back.
Me: Yeah. That’s a very Tumblr defense. You were active on there, no?
Larissa: Yeah. There’s a whole section in the book about Tumblr, as well. It really did shape certain ways that I write. There’s plenty of ways to make work that deflects the “male gaze.” It’s just so happens that my work was not that.
Me: All right. I think I’ve gotten a good amount of stuff. Is there anything you want to say on the record? Set the record straight. Anything that you want to say to the haters, the lovers, idk?
Larissa: I don’t really have anything to say. Really pondering if I have a message for my haters, or my lovers, or the people who are just like chilling. I think my hope with this text is that it would inspire some people to look some stuff up and look deeply at the world around them. And if I have encouraged a person to look up an artist or pick up a text or listen to something then I’m like, “Yeah. I did it.” Maybe that’s my final words on this matter.