A Portrait of the Life of the Artist as a Memoir in Poems
October 05, 2022
A Q&A with Aaron Caycedo-Kimura
The third volume of our Raised Voices poetry series is here! Common Grace is Aaron Caycedo-Kimura’s first major poetry collection. Organized as a deeply felt triptych, the poems explore his life as an artist, the inherited trauma within his Japanese American family, and the close bond between him and his wife. The word triptych will tip you off to how visual art plays a part in Caycedo-Kimura’s verse. An award-winning student of Robert Pinsky, Caycedo-Kimura is also a painter. Pinsky praised Common Grace as “wry, tender, musical and unsentimental.” Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Caycedo-Kimura to chat about it.
Christian Coleman: What’s the story behind naming the collection Common Grace?
Aaron Caycedo-Kimura: My manuscript was originally named What’s Kept Alive, after one of the poems in the second section. This poem compares the keeping of a Japanese maple shrub alive to keeping my family’s history alive. The title captured the overall essence of the manuscript but lacked a certain punch. My amazing editor, Catherine Tung, suggested Common Grace—the title of one of the poems in the third section. As a theological concept, common grace is the idea that there are blessings given by God for all to enjoy. These would include things like nature, relationships, even art. Common grace offers another view of the manuscript and a certain strength as a title.
CC: The poems are divided up into three parts—a triptych. How did you decide on this structure to organize your poems?
AC-K: Over the past nine or so years, I wrote a lot about my parents, my wife and our life together, and other personal experiences, including those related to my art life. The poems pretty much organized themselves.
CC: The second part also covers the racial trauma—your father’s time in the American internment camps of WWII and your mother’s memories of the firebombing of Tokyo—and joys passed down from your parents. Why was it important for you to anchor parts one and three with the poems in part two?
AC-K: The second section digs deeper into my family history and what has shaped me as a person. It also relates the most profound experience I’ve had in the past decade: the death of my parents. I wanted a way to honor them and keep their memory alive.
CC: Since the poetry in this collection explores your personal life, would you consider Common Grace an autobiography or memoir in poems? Or perhaps a biography in poems? I’m curious because the voice or the “I” of the poems doesn’t necessarily have to be that of the poet who wrote them.
AC-K: Common Grace is a memoir in poems, based on true events. That being said, poems are pieces of art, where facts are often edited and adjusted for the artistic good of the piece. Just like a landscape painting may leave out a tree here or move it over there for the good of the composition, certain facts may be changed or left out in a poem for various reasons—to protect others, for instance, or for the sake of sound, a stronger image, or to economize and move the poem along more quickly.
CC: I was really taken by the intimate, daily-life details you write about: microwaving frozen meals with your wife, fishing with your father, eating candy as a child in a salon while your mother gets her hair done. The scenes are vivid, and then there’s a turn toward the end that reveals to the reader a deeper insight underneath. Where did you learn this technique?
AC-K: When I was just starting out, I attended an ekphrastic poetry workshop given by the poet Laurel Peterson. Most of us were beginners, so she listed several guiding ideas about the nature of poetry. The last item she mentioned was that poetry reveals some bit of insight, some kernel of truth, and that’s always stayed with me. I love writing about daily life and finding some meaning that readers might be able to relate to.
CC: You have a master’s degree of music in percussion and you’re a painter. You share pictures of your artwork on your Instagram account, too. Do these arts inform your poetry in any way, and if so, how?
AC-K: It makes sense to me that I would be a poet. Poetry brings together music and visual art—sound and images. I’m very conscious of these two things when I write. With respect to images, I create places, like painting scenes, with sensory details for the reader to enter and experience what I’m feeling for themselves. With respect to sound, I try to create a kind of music with my words. I’m constantly reading the words out loud to myself. It’s like composing music.
CC: And lastly, how does it feel to have your first major poetry collection out in the world?
AC-K: It feels amazing! I’m deeply grateful to Catherine and the entire Beacon Press team for their dedication to bringing Common Grace into the world.
About Aaron Caycedo-Kimura
Aaron Caycedo-Kimura is a writer and visual artist. His chapbook, Ubasute, was selected by Jennifer Franklin, Peggy Ellsberg, and Margo Taft Stever as the 2020 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition winner. His honors include a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Poetry, a St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Award in Literature, and nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best New Poets anthologies. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Daily, RHINO, upstreet, Verse Daily, DMQ Review, Poet Lore, The Night Heron Barks, and elsewhere. Caycedo-Kimura earned his MFA in creative writing from Boston University and is also the author and illustrator of Text, Don’t Call: An Illustrated Guide to the Introverted Life (TarcherPerigee, 2017).