In conversation with Marilyn Chin

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The late poet Adrienne Rich said, “Marilyn Chin’s poems are unmistakable evidence of the universal reach of the particular – when the art is powerful, uncompromised, and unerring as hers.”

A widely anthologized author, Chin’s works have become classics of Asian American literature. A two-time recipient of NEA grants in poetry and a five-time Pushcart Prize winner, her writing has appeared in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. She teaches creative writing at San Diego State, and she has read and taught workshops all over the world.

As part of the Spring 2015 Reading Series, presented by the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing and the Fresno Poets’ Association, Chin will read Friday, Feb. 20 at Fresno State. The free event, co-sponsored by the Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas, will be in the Alice Peters Auditorium, inside the University Business Center, at 7 p.m.

In a phone interview, MFA poetry student Carleigh Takemoto spoke with Chin about experimenting with poetic form, moving beyond sadness and anger, and learning what to do when ghosts present themselves.

Carleigh Takemoto: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with us. I really enjoyed Hard Love Province.

Marilyn Chin: Oh, great! Thank you.

Carleigh: It’s an incredibly ambitious work. I’ve noticed this through in all of your poetry collections; you use so many different forms, including traditional forms, and subjects—everything from womanhood, war, dearth and ghosts, the body, racism. How did you decide to organize the poems in Hard Love Province?

Marilyn: That’s a good question. If you know my other work, I deal with many issues. All the “isms”—sexism, feminism, most of my poems are political and personal. This book is about death. I lost two boyfriends, my mother and my grandmother within 15 years, so I grieved a lot for the last 15 years and the book began as an elegy, a long elegy. And a reader can go into the book and read it cover to cover as an elegy because of the use of elegiac quatrains, which go back to, say, Tennyson’s In Memoriam.

hard-love-provinceCarleigh: I was definitely reminded of Tennyson as well as of Rilke’s elegies, as I was reading the book.

Marilyn: They are full of sorrow, but loaded with singing. The problem with contemporary poetry is that lots of poets shy away from form or shy away from musicality, so I wanted the book to be based on the elegiac quatrain, which is mimetic of Eastern and Western quatrains, so you can hear Chinese poetry but you can also hear Tennyson. It’s great that you read Tennyson. I didn’t think people read Tennyson anymore! My students usually don’t read Tennyson and aren’t familiar with that long elegy. I mean, it took him 17 years to write that!

So, in the book I wove in and out of the quatrain, in and out of sorrow. Meanwhile, there are some bad-girl haiku. I write some scatological jokes and pause on some funny business, so I don’t get stuck in weeping. The book began as an elegy, but I wanted the quatrains to be free-flowing, for them to come and go, to tell a little tale here and there, but then to come back to the elegiac source and comment on both Eastern and Western traditions.

Carleigh: I’m one of those people who is terrified of form, but your elegies made me slightly obsessed with the quatrain. I actually taught your poem, Chinese Quatrains (The Woman in Tomb 44) in the introduction to poetry class I teach at Fresno State because I think I started to think in quatrains, which I know harken all the way back to the Tang dynasty. In Hard Love Province you have 25 remarkable haikus. How are you able to take these ancient forms and make them so impactful to the contemporary reader?

Marilyn: With haiku, for instance, there is this idea that the form is kind of saccharine and everybody’s kind of co-opted the haiku, like Hallmark greeting cards, so it has become a cliché, but I work a lot with traditional forms. For my bad-girl haikus, I made them raucous and I use a long, sweeping line. In traditional haiku someone like Bashō would write a long line, top to bottom, left to right in one long script with a grassy style inkmanship. I shied away from the five-seven-five caesura pattern and used different sonic patterns with different stresses. Some of the lines are very heavily stressed, so they sound kind of Whitman-esque, but at the same time they have the feeling of the ancient haiku and are also very subversive and even perverse. They’re perverted and perverse! But, I’m just having fun with ancient form, I’m not afraid to play with form.

Sometimes I think we’re a little too respectful of the ancients, or we’re just afraid to go there because something like the haiku has become a cliché. Really, if you go back to Pound’s idea of “making it new,” I think this is the problem for contemporary poets. We feel like everything’s been done, but that’s not true. It’s up to us to complicate things and make things fun for the reader and for ourselves.

Carleigh: Speaking of caesura, I was really impressed by your use of the visual caesura throughout the book. As a reader, I’m never sure what to make of them in a poem. As a writer, how do you make use of that technique?

Marilyn: Especially in this book, I tried to make physical spaces between words. I read Chinese poetry every morning and I visualize the space between characters, and when I write in English I use caesura as a technique to try to pay homage to the silence between words as well as the sound and meaning of the word. I think those silences are just as important as the words themselves. It’s like the silence between the stones or the water flowing between stones are as important as the stones. I play with that in these quatrains moreso in this book than I have in the past.

In this moment we have so much noise, so many devices going, so sometimes when I stop the poem or slow down the poem with these silences, I feel calmed by them. At the same time, perhaps the former quatrain might have been an explosive, angry quatrain, but I can slow the next quatrain down by honoring the silences as well as the words. Really, it’s just playing with sounds and with silences, as opposed to those angry stones, those angry bursts of noise. They’re like silent lute strings, or taking a breath.

It’s also playing with the idea of the quatrain as a fixed entity or a fixed thought, a complete idea or a complete poem, but that quatrain moves on to the next. It’s mimetic of the mind moving throughout the book. I was playing with pauses, silence and loud noises. Some of the pieces are hip-hop inflected. Brown Girl Manifesto has a strong beat to it, for example. I think in a lot of ways we’ve stopped playing with sound and we’ve stopped playing with the musicality of poems and I think it’s very important to honor sound, music and stresses that come with the craft of the poem.

Carleigh: It creates a meditative moment, yes?

Marilyn: With grief, with recovery and healing one must meditate and slow down. With grieving there’s a lot of anger and heart-throbbing pain, so one must have moments of solace, meditation, as you say, and healing. Our feelings and emotions move from one moment to the next and we change how we feel about things moment to moment. I had a great time writing this book, but in some ways it had a lot to do with my own healing. I was really sad and angry at times, so I kept writing these quatrains because I thought, well it took Tennyson 17 years to finish his quatrains and I’m kind of a slow writer myself!

Carleigh: The book moves beyond that sadness and anger. There are these incredibly funny poems and moments of intense joy, I think, in a lot of the poems in Hard Love Province.

Marilyn: That’s true. One can’t dwell in that sadness for too long. There are joyful, sexy, crazy moments. I’m not afraid to write with the bodily juices.

Carleigh: I think you’re a fearless writer.

Marilyn: I want to be fearless! We need to be. We’re writing poetry! I think some people don’t want to write with their emotions anymore. They want to be ironic and hip, you know what I mean?

Carleigh: Your book really challenged my sense of form. Your prose poem, Horns, has really stayed with me. I’ve read it over and over. It reminds me of my favorite Japanese folktales, the ones with really strange creatures. I feel like a lot of Asian Americans inherit a whole pantheon of ghosts and demons. My ghosts show up when I write, and I saw a lot of ghosts in your poems. Where did you get your ghosts?

Marilyn: Those ghost stories stay with me. They were told by my grandmother, my aunties, my mother. A lot of stories about the Buddhist gods used to scare me. They used to be things like, you better not lie, or the ox-headed demon will come and cut your tongue out! I mean, some of them were horrific. They’ve stayed with me and I’m fascinated by them. They’re primal and they’re ancient. I love ancient stories and ancient art. I’m somewhat at classicist in my ways. I love ancient Chinese and Japanese stories and I’m not crazy about trying to translate contemporary work or modern works. I have translated some work of modern Chinese poets, I am more interested in the ancients, works from the Tang dynasty, even back to the Shujing, and I love these old tales.

In the summer, I would keep going to the Harvard-Yenching Library and go through the shelves and find these tales. I read a tale about a girl who has a disease that made her grow these little horns on her head and everyone in her village thought she was the devil and sent her away. Then she arrived at a different village where they thought she was a goddess. It was all about interpretation. I wanted to give a history, about pogroms and so forth. We all survive terrible histories and by the time we arrive at the 21st Century, for those of us who got here to Southern California, we get the privilege to walk on the beach, on a sun-flooded promenade in San Diego! So this girl had these horns, I think she’s okay now.

Carleigh: You transformed her life so that that the last image of the little horned girl is that she’s walking on the promenade on the beach in San Diego with her surfer boyfriend!

Marilyn: I love the prose poem. In 2009, I published a book of fiction, and I have a lot of tales in there that are transformative tales, or animal tales and I don’t know if you can trace all of them back to ancient Chinese, Japanese or ancient Asian texts, but I am inspired by those texts, for sure.

mooncake-vixenCarleigh: I wanted to take a moment to talk about your fiction writing. Is there a connection in writing fiction and writing poetry? Is there more or less of a divide between the two than writers think?

Marilyn: I actually have a table for writing fiction and a table for writing poetry. Actually some of the pieces from Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, my book of fiction, were published first as prose poems. But that book started talking to me as fiction because the characters started speaking out and they started occupying the book, and I realized I was no longer writing prose poems, I’m writing narrative, I’m writing about a neighborhood and these are characters. I think the prose poem and flash fiction are very closely related and I think my prose poems exist in both worlds. It’s the publishing world that sees a distinction.

When I got my MFA from Iowa, there were two bars: one for the fiction writers and one for the poets. I don’t know if it’s segregated like that now, but I think there is some segregation. I took some fiction classes just because I’m interested in storytelling, and my poems are image-driven and I’m interested in the poetic form. Sometimes, I just can’t squeeze everything I want to say into a poem. I’m glad to play with genre. I think it’s really important for young writers not to decide on your style or your genre too early. I tell my students to try everything, because you should. Don’t settle for one style too soon. It happens to aging poets and aging writers as well. They sort of find themselves writing in a certain style or form because they get gratification. Even good writers and good poets get stuck in a certain convention.

It doesn’t matter what that convention is, if you’re a narrative poet, maybe you should do some weird imagistic poems, and if you’re a postmodern, experimental poet, maybe you should ground a few poems with narrative. The problem with being in the poetry world, per se, the academy, is that sometimes we become sheep and we write what the academy tells us to write. It’s kind of a quiet, insidious way of controlling our aesthetics. I want to try everything. I want to complicate things and explore different avenues.

Carleigh: What other advice do you have for young writers?

Marilyn: Read a lot. When I was young I was really ambitious and I wanted to read in a lot of different poetry in other languages. I’m a little lazier now, but I still try to read a lot of classical Chinese. At one time I tried to read Baudelaire in French and I’d read some Spanish and I took out my high school Latin books and I tried to read Catullus. I think it’s important to be a total poetry geek, to be a total nerd, to really know and love your genre. Be immersed in the art. I still have so much to learn. I mean, I can’t write a linear novel for the life of me, but it’s good to read linear novels. It’s important to read widely and deeply. Don’t you just love the feel of a book in your hand?

As writers, it’s also important to be interested in other genres and other media. I feel very inspired when I go to museums and plays and I love film. I try to do some calligraphy and do some dance. I think it’s also good for young writers to really tap into their feelings, I know that sounds really maudlin. I lost so many people; it’d be strange for me to not write a book of elegies. It’s so important to be in the moment with your poems and experiment with subject matter. There’s so much to learn as writers.

Carleigh: What are you reading?

Marilyn: I have such a strange reading palate. I’m reading some weird poems by Stevie Smith and she’s a modernist English poet. I’m reading a lot of fiction. My boyfriend is a Ukrainian-Jewish dude and he insists I read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I was re-reading Kafka. He’s the king of weirdness. I was also reading Edgar Allan Poe. Some people hate him. But truly there’s not another writer like him, he’s truly weird. So, I’m rediscovering things. I also got a copy of Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is a great study in monologue. I’m also always reading something Chinese. Right now, I have Du Fu’s Autumn Meditations out on my desk.

Carleigh: What are you working on now?

Marilyn: I just finished this book and I’m working on new poetry and new fiction. There’s so much going on, it’s thrilling and it’s terrifying. In my poetry I’m trying to elongate the line and make it more Whitman-esque. I’m writing some creature poems and some outer-space poems. I want to see where I can go.

Carleigh: You really challenge yourself!

Marilyn: I get bored if I don’t. You know, some poets write the same poem over and over again. I can’t do that. I feel better when I’m being challenged, when I’m exploring.

Carleigh Takemoto studies poetry in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.

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