Online Exclusive: Audio Reading and Q&A with Margaret Rhee

March 11, 2015

Margaret Rhee's robot poems are quirky, lovely, and full of humanity. They're just strange enough to make the reader consider our connections from a new angle, but suffused with enough longing and emotion to resonate. The two poems featured in Issue 28 are only several of a series of robot poems Rhee has been working on. We asked her to give us a reading of the two poems, and then had her answer a few questions about her work.


Robots are awesome. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for these two poems?

Robots are awesome, but because they are complicated. I was at the Oakland Museum for the really wonderful Giant Robot exhibition, and it was so great seeing young children gather around the small robot figurines, exclaiming with awe and delight. On the other hand, we have portrayals of frightening robots in popular culture, such as the Terminator, or sexy depictions of killer cylons like in the television series, Battlestar Gallatica. So, robots provoke diverse meanings shaped by society's relationship with technology and difference. Basically, robots teach us what it means to be human.

"Beam, Robot" and "How to Make Love to a Robot," are two poems from my full-length manuscript on robot love poems. The poems were inspired, after my friend, the wonderful poet and roboticist Dmitry Berenson.

When I was completing my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, I had a desk at the Sutardja Dai Hall lab. Dmitry had the desk next to me. At the time, he held a postdoctoral position working with roboticist and new media artist Ken Goldberg. Ken also served on my dissertation committee and helped inspire my interest in robots. Dmitry is a really amazing poet, but at the time of our meeting, I had no idea he was a poet. I assumed he was, like everyone in the lab, a scientist or technologist. The only humanists in the lab were working in new media, and we were quite marginal in the space. Additionally, you cannot assume every  humanist writes poetry.

At my desk, I had a photograph of poet Langston Hughes, and a pile of poetry collections on my shelf, so my poetry affiliation was quite obvious! One day, Dmitry asked me who the person in the photograph was, and I started explaining Langston Hughes' poetry by way of "What Happens to a Dream Deferred?" to which Dmitry wonderfully interrupted me, as he was quite familiar with the poem. He shared he was a poet too. He actually studied with Terrance Hayes when he was a robotics graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, and it turned out Dmitry is a really amazing poet. We soon started a poetry writing group with others at UC Berkeley. One day, after a group discussion on poetry and love, I wrote the first poem in the series, "Love, Robot" and it was published in the literary journal Mission At Tenth.   

In 2013, I was accepted to a graduate workshop in poetry with Robert Hass, one of my formative poetry mentors, and I wrote both poems, "Beam, Robot," and "This Is How You Make Love To A Robot," along with other robot love poems in the workshop. As I mentioned, I work closely with Ken Goldberg on my scholarly research on the cultural history of robots. As mentors and interlocutors, Bob, Ken, and Dmitry, greatly shaped and inspired my early writing of the robot love poems. 

I like the juxtaposition of the two poems, how one dictates the terms of making love to a robot, and the other actually tells how that love story might unfold. The second poem in particular, is suffused with a very human longing, but in a way that is almost disconnected, like it’s an echo or simulacrum of the human-human version of a relationship. I can’t help but wonder about the narrator (or narrators) of the poems, and the unique experience and authority this narrator has in speaking about robots, as a human. Who or what do you imagine this narrator to be?

I'm still figuring out this world. The world of these poems belongs to a near future where love between robots and humans is more than possible, even if marginalized. I love how you use the word echo, and perhaps, I think of love and memories, as never ceasing echoes too. What does the heart know? The heart never forgets. The heart has a different temporality than what we understand in this world, as time.

The narrators of these poems are firmly situated within this near future world of 'love, robot,' and perhaps that is where their authority comes from. Although, I think at heart, I hope the poems confuse and blur the boundaries between human and machine.  

I'm interested in exploring how love can transcend demarcations of difference? How can we understand how love and lovemaking is also socially constructed as much as it is chemistry and physicality?

According to psychologist John Money, humans all have "love maps." The "love map" is a template or group of messages encoded in individual's biology, which describes our ideals of love, desire, and attraction. So could we think about how the human heart can be programmed, coded, and built like robots? How might machines and objects evoke intimacy, attachment, and love? 

I understand that these are two poems in a series of robot poems you’ve been working on, and also that you’ve done your doctoral research on “Asian American Robot Art”. Can you explain a little about your fascination with robots, and how it has interested you in the context of your writing?

I was very blessed to work with some inspiring professors at UC Berkeley on my dissertation research. As I mentioned, I worked with Ken and he taught my first course in new media art and inspired my interests in the cultural study of robots. Additionally, I worked with feminist science and technology studies scholar Charis Thompson who also inspired my passion in the study of science, gender, and race. As I began working through these robot questions within poetry and scholarship, I discovered amazing cultural workers and scholars who inspire my hopes for my work, which include Minsoo Kang, Ronaldo Wilson, Douglas Kearney, Neil Aitken, Larissa Lai and others. At UC Berkeley, I taught a class, "Race, Robots, and the Inhuman," which draws upon these questions on robots and difference. I learned tons from the very smart students I got to work with.

In my scholarship, I examine how Asian Americans are perceived by American mainstream cultures as cyborgs or robots. My book explores the roots and politics of this perception through popular media, history, and robotic art. I am fascinated by how Asian American artists, seemingly racialized as inhuman, would utilize the figure of the robot to resist. I ask, how might robotic art, seemingly devoid of racial connotations, work as racial resistance? 

Our theme for this issue is “R/Evolution” – this idea that those two ideas are intertwined. Where do you see the current landscape of Asian American poetry fitting into ideas of revolution, and where do you think it’s headed?

I think Asian American poetry today is in a phenomenal, exciting, and dazzling place. We're in an incredibly exciting moment, but we are also the beneficiaries of movement building and the resistance work by pioneering Asian American poets from previous generations. It is really interesting to think about the connections between the literary and Asian American and people of color revolutions of the 1960s. If the publication of the first anthology of Asian American writing, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers marks the start of an Asian American literary movement, we can see how the formation of Kundiman, the first national Asian American poetry organization may be the start of the contempoary Asian American literary movement. Years ago, I talked to poet Myung Mi Kim about these connections, who said something really insightful: every movement has it's own charge

As Myung Mi's words suggests, every generation has its our own charge. While they were incredibly pioneering, some of the Asian American literary movements of the past, weren't great at including women, queers, and other ethnic groups aside from Japanese and Chinese American writers. But again, they battled incredibly racist literary worlds, and assumptions, and in doing so, they formed Asian American literary cultural organizations that make pioneering Asian Americans organizations, like Kundiman, Hyphen, and the Asian American Writers Workshop, possible today.

If we think of revolution as evolution, I think it suggests how every revolution needs to build upon previous movements and stay in conversation with that history, as well as reimagining the future. We can't forget where we come from, and yet, we can't forget where and how we want to move forward in a way that is politically and aesthetically transformative. I worked at the Kundiman's retreat last year as the Fellow Liaison, and I could not help but see viscerally how Asian American poetry is a thriving and powerful force. Kundiman co-founder Joseph Legaspi once said something like the future of Asian American poetry is not only just okay, but it's spectacular. I believe him.

What’s the latest, greatest book you’ve read, and what books are you looking forward to?

The latest, greatest books I've been reading includes reading poetry and scholarship: Petra Kuppers & Neil Marcus' Cripple Poetics which is a beautiful love story about disability, and Margo Machida's Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary. Since it's summer, I've also been reading novels and I was very moved by The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I'm looking forward to reading dear friend the great poet Craig Santos Perez's new collection, [GUMA'] and my wondrous femme scholar mentor Juana Maria Rodriguez's forthcoming book Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings, and the very fabulous Hoang Tan Nguyen's A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation. These are all books I'm currently reading. 

Magazine Section: 

Karissa Chen


Karissa Chen is Editor-in-Chief of Hyphen magazine. She also serves as the Senior Literature Editor.