Born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Marilyn Chin is one of the most celebrated contemporary Chinese-American poets. Winner of the 2020 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, her collections include A Portrait of the Self as Nation (2018), Hard Love Province (2014), Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002), Dwarf Bamboo (1987) and The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994, 2009) alongside a novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (2009). Also a translator, she has translated poems by the modern Chinese poet Ai Qing and co-translated poems by the Japanese poet Gozo Yoshimasu.
Chin’s work unravels the complexity of racial diversity, equality and identity. Poet Jennifer Wong spoke to her in 2016, and in preparation for Chin’s (virtual) appearance at Hong Kong International Literary Festival later this year, shares the interview:
You have been to a lot of places for your writing and residencies, and you have lived in different places: you spent your childhood in Hong Kong and moved to America. How do you see home and being away. Does it have a temporary or permanent impact on your work?
I am very restless. I was born in Hong Kong, raised in Portland, Oregon. I went to undergraduate school in Iowa, and then lived in Bay Area in California. I have lived in California. I then got a teaching position in San Diego. I have been all over. I have lots of friends in Boston and New York City. I taught in the low-residency progra in Hong Kong’s City University before it was closed. Any of these places are my home. Simultaneously I am in exile. When I was a child in Hong Kong, I used to think London is my capital. But then I realized I have a different kind of passport: I am not allowed to go to London. We are colonial subjects there, right? Home was where my mother and grandma were. But my mother and grandmother were gone now, and so I feel homeless in many ways, but yet I am constantly traveling.
I was raised by my grandmother who spoke Toisan, a very ancient language.
Your poetry engages with language(s) on many levels. What language does your family speak?
My family spoke Toisan. They escaped from the Mainland before 1949, and they moved to Hong Kong. They came from peasant-like background. I was raised by my grandmother who spoke Toisan, a very ancient language. I see myself as part of the minority tribe. I align myself more with people like Kafka, with his weird dialect. I see myself as an outsider on many levels even if we are Han.
As for your interest in the Chinese literary tradition and forms. When and where does that come from?
When we were young, we have to memorize those texts from Tu Fu and others. And my grandmother used to carry me on my back and chant to me Chinese poems and sayings. The first kind of poetry I heard was Chinese poetry, and it ingrained in my ear, even though English is my main language. I can hardly read Chinese. The Chinese poem was ingrained in me when I was very young. You can hear the Cantonese language in my work. The Chineseness is in the DNA of my work. I can’t divorce it from my work. I can’t say I forget it. it’s there. Bei Dao’s generation was not trained in that tradition. They didn’t go to university to study wenyanwen or ancient poetry. They were imitating the West. I tried to read Chinese poetry every day, because I think it’s important for my aesthetics.
Living in America, you embrace different sets of values. How does that impact on your writing?
I feel that it has to do with Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness: you inherit a set of values at home, and have to embrace another set of values when you walk out of home. You are appreciated if you are more assertive at school. On the contrary, you are supposed to be obedient at home. It’s about balancing the two worlds. My poetry is about negotiating many worlds, the past and the present, as well as the East and the West. “Inner cultivation” and outer despair. The sublime and the ridiculous.
I am always fighting against the stereotype of the subservient female maiden.
Your work is anchored by a strong feminist language.
I am always fighting against the stereotype of the subservient female maiden. I want to shake up the assumptions about being a Chinese-American woman. We all must champion women’s and children’s rights in the world. The little brown girl is still the most vulnerable person in the room. It’s important that I keep those feminist ideals and give voice to that girl who is still trembling within me. I have suffered hunger, abandonment, fear, violence early in my life. The self must represent something larger than the self.
There is always this wild girl peeking through the sageness. To say something controversial and to disrupt the surface. I am 60 now. I am a seasoned poet and writer.
I believe that I am a poet of the body and of the mind and of the soul! to mimic Whitman.
Do you think that poetry has the responsibility of representing the minority and is representation essentially problematic?
Writers must always speak out against racism and injustice.
When I went to the Iowa workshop in the early 80s, political poems were not valued. Some of my fellow writers were skeptical about my poems. But I have been engaged with social protests since the seventies and eighties. In those days, the minority artists worked together in a lively coalition to fight against the ugly dominant monster of racism. and I was active in the San Francisco Bay area protests. I am proud to call myself an activist.
On the other hand, I do write all kinds of poems. Henry Louis Gates told me that I must assert that I am first and foremost a poet, not just an activist poet. My work encompasses activist poetry but also does a lot more than protest. I am reinventing bicultural forms. I am an innovator: the creator of the Chinese-American quatrain, of the lyric manifesto, of erotic haiku and remix sonnets! In terms of the responsibility of a poet, it is important to engage in political and social issues, yes! This is a racist world! We must speak against all kinds of injustice.
Do you think there are enough activist poets in America?
Because black lives are at stake every day, almost every person of color has to respond to these issues. But for a long time some Asian-Americans didn’t want to write about being Asian-Americans, didn’t want to write a racially-marked poetry. I think that the pendulum has swung toward writing poetry with a social consciousness.
The two main issues in American history are slavery and the destruction of native Americans, historical events that have left a profound mark on American history. On even a larger scale, I would say more than ever, now in the era of Trump. We must fight against demagogues all over the world. This open hatred against immigrants! Against dark-skinned peoples… The language of building a wall, “bad hombres”, China-shaming! The demagogues are manufacturing fear and hate, Islamophobia, and generally, phobia against anybody who is “different” and might take your job.
There is in discrimination against the model minority (Asian-Americans), motivated by the fear that Asian-Americans are taking over the opportunities in education and employment. On a more universal scale, I would say that there is the hatred against immigrants. Right now this becomes an urgent issue even in Europe, evidenced in the impact of Brexit. I think that area is under-addressed.
In the same way there is also resentment against China’s economic power taking over the world. These are all current concerns originating from the eternal struggles of race and class.
I echo Adrienne Rich’s idea that the personal is political. My poetics is rooted in my personal history, and from there I examine the world around me. I see myself not just as a Chinese-American, but as a global citizen. I care about America but also about what happens in the world.
Your poems such as “Sonnetnese”, “From a Notebook of an ex-Revolutionary” interrogate the relationship between the past and the present, offering a somewhat postmodern, postcolonial reading of history and ancestry. What role does poetry play in understanding or articulating history of your homeland?
One has to engage with the different aspects of history. For example, “Sonnetnese” and “From a Notebook of an Ex-Revolutionary” are both provocative parodies. I think the Chinese are still grappling with that part of history. Maybe the Western reader will not be able to access those poems fully. I want to embrace my Chinese-ness and yet it is very foreign and intriguing to me.
Very early in my career, I wrote about bamboo, not with an “orientalist” sentiment but because I have seen bamboo scaffolding that is used in building giant skyscrapers in Hong Kong and I have seen a person fall off and die… Only someone who was raised in Asia could “know” about bamboo scaffolding. Chinese history, Hong Kong history course through my blood.
I am an “American” poet!
Would you say that your play on poetic forms is becoming more experimental in your recent collection?
I think it’s important to reinvent with poetry. It’s about making form and contents work in a spectacular way. I try to challenge myself. I don’t like to get too comfortable with a certain kind of poetry. I like to keep experimenting. It’s important to love your genre and the possibilities. There’s so much to explore for those poets with bilingual and multicultural backgrounds as well.
Some of my poems are more narrative and some are more experimental. My “Twenty Five Haiku” was published in Poetry Foundation magazine. Some people loved it for its transgressiveness while there are also haiku purists who dislike it. I have kept to the 17-syllable form but I subverted and perverted the frog image. A satirical play against the patriarchy! I wrote a quasi-Chinese verse entitled ‘Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony’, in which I took away all the punctuations. It reads like a Chinese translation but it is also an elliptical, postmodern poem. I took the title from Yeats. Yet it is a very Chinese poem because of the eclipsed pronouns.
Do you see yourself as an American poet?
I am an “American” poet! Not because I subscribe to a certain American esthetic. I write in English and not in Chinese. I’m a force to be reckoned with. I have my “chops” and I have written a serious, strong and diverse oeuvre of works. I belong to the American legacy and deserve a place in it. I look back at my career with pride. And I believe that I am presently at my height of creativity and am writing some bad-ass prose and poetry, right now, as we speak!
But the young girl who read my poem “The Floral Apron” for the BBC to represent Hong Kong at the London Olympics wants to claim me as well. It’s important to have a transnational readership. To not have borders, to have one’s poetry travel well.
I celebrate my Americanness. I celebrate my Chinese-ness. I celebrate my transnational identity.
We poets need to enrich the vocab.
You capture and weld the familiar and the alien, and your work offers refreshing insights on the power of naming and believing. In Hard Love Province, for example, coinages like “Cougar Sinonymous”, “Fathersong”, “Deterritorialized”, “Kalifornia” etc. suggest a new way of rewriting place(s), positions and identities. What is your rationale for naming things differently?
I think it’s important to reinvent with poetry. It’s about making form and contents work in a spectacular way. I try to challenge myself. I don’t like to get too comfortable with a certain kind of poetry. I like to keep experimenting. It’s important to love your genre and the possibilities. There’s so much to explore for we poets with bilingual and multicultural backgrounds. It’s up to poets to reinvent words! Internet memes, tweet-speak between hashtags… the world wants to shorten and limit the word count.
We poets need to enrich the vocab. And it’s fun! Sinonymous embraces “sin” and “sinologist” and “anonymous” in the same breath! “Kalifornia” pays homage to my beloved state and the fierce Goddess. I’m a freaking wordsmith, I can’t help it, I’m a poet!
At the same time, it is hard to categorize or pigeonhole my writing in a coherent way. Although I call myself an activist writer, I also play on forms and traditions. I amalgamate poems. I also play with the postmodern narratives, even poems that are more akin to songs and speech acts.
It’s not a good idea to write down to your reader.
You are a poet and an academic. Do you think that your engagement with the academic world impacts on your poetry?
I retired from my tenured job early partly because I would like to devote more time to writing poetry. The ancients did that too, they retreated to the countryside and “cleanse from the mud” of the academy and “palace art”. They retreated into the woods to hear their own voice again. Of course, these were rich privileged aristocratic poets. Some were forced exiles like Du Fu, who wrote some of his best works in his later years. In angst, of course. He felt abandoned. However, as we all know, he became the greatest poet of China.
I taught in academia for over 25 years. Early on, I was informed by theorists such as Cixous, Said, Spivak, Gates and mostly postcolonial and feminist theorists. I learned a lot from the black arts movement. I loved reading black feminist thinkers on my own (outside of academia)—Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Bell Hooks, etc. Tough women poets/thinkers like Gloria Anzaldua and Tri Min Ha. And of course, Adrienne Rich.
I never let theory or academic jargon laminate my creative work. I think it’s popular now to privilege a theoretical or conceptual framework first and have the poem be subordinate to the framework. I always value the poem first. The poem itself must be “brilliant”and distinctive to survive the test of time. Well, we could argue about what it means to be “brilliant.” Adrienne Rich believes “the poem must serve” the people. Somehow, I don’t want my poems to be relevant to only a few readers in academia.
I never write essays. I don’t want to over-analyze… the process could take the magic out of the creative fire. Being an academic also means that I am very self-critical. I scrutinize each word and I have worked up a hundred drafts for some poems.
Who do you write for?
I write for the best reader possible. I don’t want to write down to my reader. Someone who is well-read, possibly knows some Chinese or interested in Chinese poetry. I hope my work will prompt someone to consider or study more about Chinese poetry. It’s not a good idea to write down to your reader.