DREAM OF ME AS WATER: Catching Up with David Ly
Interview by Jake Byrne
Moving beyond the themes of race, identity, and personhood navigated in Mythical Man, David Ly’s second book of poetry, Dream of Me as Water, explores ways of being that are not beholden to the expectations of others. Using water as his central metaphor, Ly meditates on how identity is never a stagnant concept, but instead something that is intangible, fluid, and ever-evolving. Dream of Me as Water revels in the nuances of the self, flouting outside perceptions for deeper, more personal realities. – Palimpsest Press
Jake Byrne interviewed David about his new book, Dream of Me as Water, in late 2022. They spoke for an hour. This is an excerpt of their conversation.
Jake Byrne (JB): It felt to me the speaker’s gaze [in Dream of Me as Water] turned inwards. Mythical Man portrayed longing, an emotion which queer people are pretty familiar with, and then this book was about intimacy—
David Ly (DL): I think the speakers [of Mythical Man] found themselves defined a lot by others, like their partner. Just people who were in their life, and that really defined who they were. And the myth of who they were.
So I didn’t want to do that again because it was tiring to write, I found, and to talk about. So yeah, this book turned inwards and asked, who are you without these other people?
JB: With many poems in this collection there’s this deliberate use of white space, like you could tell you had pared away a lot…these are things that all poets do—
DL: It’s funny that you say that all poets do it because I feel like, for me at least, I don’t think about it when I’m doing it…when you talk about white space…truth be told, I don’t ever think about white space on a page.
It just never crosses my mind.
JB: Wild! [laughing]
DL: [coyly] But again if my poems are using white space like that, well, I guess they are.
JB: Most of this stuff just happens as we write. You eventually get good at doing certain things unconsciously.
DL: But going back to what you said…about the poems feeling pared down. I’m a pretty hard self-editor.
This is a hard interview by the way, nobody ever asks me about craft, or white space.
JB: Oh, did you did you want some human-interest questions? [ribbingly]
I think there’s a lot of skill that goes into your composition even if you’re being modest about how intentional it is. How would you describe the book, as you envisioned it? Why water?
DL: I wanted to have fun writing the book and fun reading the poems. Comparing [DOMAW] to Mythical Man, which was received so well, but was a hard book to write.
It was even harder to read over and over again to people.
I didn’t want to be known as that gay Asian poet who always writes about being gay and Asian and I find that a lot of like queer Asian poets [are put into that box].
JB: It seems to be a dilemma that a lot of writers are talking about—that you are expected to perform your trauma in a particular mode. I’m thinking about Vivek Shraya’s Trauma Clown photoshoot and this poem in your book—
DL: If you’re a racialized writer, there’s this unspoken expectation [among white audiences] that your writing is always going to be about trauma and like racism and it’s like, how do I write beyond that?
So I turned my gaze inward, like you said. There are other facets of me that I cherish more than being queer and being Asian, like what I can confidently say now, as an adult, is my kind of insane imagination.
That is kind of a double-edged sword for me—it gets me into trouble, but it’s also something really beautiful that I’ve kept since I was a child.
So I wanted the second book of poetry to be more fun—more exploring of my psyche, the depths of my imagination and how far I can take it.
JB: “inner child work.”
DL: It started out in 2016 with just a title. “Dream of Me as Water.” I have to Google stuff all the time to find out if I’ve made it up myself.
JB: [excitedly] Yeah! Yeah!!!! The fear of cryptoplagiarism…
DL: But the book started with that, and then an idea: what can an identity be when it isn’t beholden to how others perceive you?
That’s where this metaphor of water comes in. It is many things at once, it has several forms, it fits its container, is powerful and scary and destructive, but is also life-giving and and calming and beautiful.
Why water? I’ve always had an affinity to water, to fish [gestures to fish tank on Zoom screen].
JB: Well I could tell you were having fun with it. The speculative poetry, the alternative multiverses of “Future Excavation,” it was fun to see you push yourself on the imaginative front.
Okay. Changing track. What about “Seas of Origin.” How important is this poem to the book?
DL: I felt torn about putting this [poem] in or not. What I wanted to do was write a poem about eels…specifically the Sargasso Sea, where freshwater eels gather to procreate…it’s super weird. For some reason, the poem turned into something I didn’t expect, the three seas of origin…you know, race, racism. Queerness.
JB: I guess my follow-up to that is just like that Classic X-Men storyline. It’s like, would you give up being a mutant, […] even though it’s the thing that makes you you, your superpower. The thing that others you is the same that makes your story your own—
DL: Okay, the reason why I wouldn’t give up my mutation, i.e. like the horrible stuff that I’ve been through is, even though it sounds so lame and like an X-Men comic book but, it makes you stronger, in a way? It makes you more resilient. Like, in your question.
JB: in a different Multiverse with none of these hierarchies—race, racism, queerness, what would David write about?
DL: I don’t know if I would write a book like [DOMAW] because this book stems from the experience of having written Mythical Man. And if I existed in a world without racism in queerness and those hierarchies, Mythical Man might not have ever existed. Pretty sad that ‘racism’ is one of them, but here we are—
JB: It’s impossible, right? I’m no longer me, you’re no longer you without these things—and those feeling with ourselves are what draw us to art…
DL: I think it’s important to honor your own work because without your previous poems, your previous writing—your current stuff wouldn’t exist.
JB: What’s up next?
DL: I’m tempted to—I haven’t talked to my editor about this—there’s the recurring motifs in my books of all the animals. What if I dove in 100% and went all the way with the animal imagery—
JB: I thought that’s what this book was!
DL: Because I feel like between [my two books] I’ve been collecting this menagerie of animals and like, what am I doing with them all? So what if I just left the zoo pens open and walked away?
JB: Why not? Could be some beautiful plumage in there.
Jake Byrne lives in Tka:ronto, cka Toronto. They won CV2’s Foster Prize for Poetry in 2019. Their debut collection, CELEBRATE PRIDE WITH LOCKHEED MARTIN, is available from Wolsak & Wynn, followed by DADDY in 2024 with Brick Books. Find them at @jakebyrnewrites.
David Ly is the author of Mythical Man, which was shortlisted for the 2021 ReLit Poetry Award, and Dream of Me as Water, both published under the Anstruther Books of Palimpsest Press. He is also co-editor (with Daniel Zomparelli) of Queer Little Nightmares: An Anthology of Monstrous Fiction and Poetry (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022).