Hosting Voices: A Conversation with Ching-In Chen
I first met Ching-In Chen at the Silver Lake Jubilee, where she performed at the Molossus showcase alongside Jamey Hecht and Monica Carter. I had recently read her first book, The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books, $21), a novel in poems that employs a great variety of forms to tell the story of Xiaomei, a young Chinese immigrant in America. I admire and recommend The Heart’s Traffic to all readers of contemporary poetry, especially those interested in hybrid and multi-genre forms.
Your first book, The Heart’s Traffic, is a novel in poems. What other novels in verse and narrative poems do you admire?
My absolute favorite has been Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution. I admire her ambition to write a speculative story in two very different voices (one is a tour guide who speaks in a desert tongue made up of 300 other tongues; the other a historian) with intersecting histories and the breadth of the imagination it took to write such a book. While writing my book, I found helpful A. Van Jordan’s Macnolia, which tells the story of the first African American student to make it to the National Spelling Bee final, as well as Frank X. Walker’s Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York, a collection of persona poems from the point of view of Clark’s personal slave, York. I also admired Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red for her language that shatters.
I’m struck by the blurbs on your book: Arthur Sze, Terrence Hayes, Juan Felipe Herrera, Rigoberto Gonzalez. I’m jealous. One of the things that comes up again and again is your use of so many forms, from the sestina to the haibun—even the zuihitsu! How do you use form, or how does it use you?
The main character, Xiaomei, is confronted with the basic question of who she is—both who she’s been told she should be and who she wants to be—and this shifts throughout the book as she grows up. For me, the variety of the poetic forms were ways that I could use collective voices from a wide variety of communities and traditions, but also stay true to Xiaomei’s wide-ranging and roaming journey. It was also a way for me to challenge myself to keep going on a longer project, to give myself an assignment and therefore continually re-invent my interest in the project and the character or give myself a fresh perspective.
In your notes it comes out that many of your poems are after a great range of poets, from Li-Young Lee to Faiz Ahmed Faiz. You also incorporate text from interviews with Arthur Golden. Tell me about the incorporation of those voices. How do you make the space for them to dialogue with and within your work?
I think poets are always in conversation with other writers. When I feel drained of inspiration, I fill myself up with lines, images, whatever strikes up words within me and then grow it into something that helps me participate in that conversation.
During this project, I became interested in how different poems birth more poems, sometimes within the body of the original poem. Also, I started experimenting with hosting multiple voices within the poems—and all this grew out of the novel in poems structure. Before this project, I wrote primarily out of my own lived experience. What happened with this book organically was that more and more of the terrain unfolded in front of me—and often from different points of view, which felt very liberating.
I love the idea of using riddles to tell stories. Can you speak to that?
This began when I was reading Li-Young Lee’s poetic memoir, The Winged Seed. At that point, I was mid-way through the first draft and I had Xiaomei, the main character down, but was struggling to find a way to connect her experience as a new immigrant to the Asian American community she was entering into and the history of that community. Reading about how Li-Young Lee’s father told him riddles reminded me of a family game we would sometimes play on road trips with my family where my dad would tell us Chinese riddles and we would have to guess them. It seemed to be a perfect form to adopt because I wanted to use structures and forms that other people might not think of as poetry, but which meant more to me in terms of my development as a writer than the learning about sonnets (which I did in high school). I also was interested in playing with the different variations of the sounds of the word—a la Harryette Mullen.
How much of The Heart’s Traffic is autobiographical? How much do readers—an especially interviewers—tend to project the poetry back on you?
I would say it’s all autobiographical—in that I think that all books tend to reflect some obsession that the writer is working on. In terms of specific details of Xiaomei’s life, I would say that some of her experiences I pulled from my life, and others from the lives of those around me, and still some were imagined. Many tend to read the body of the writer into the work and assume that the book is thinly veiled autobiography. One reviewer actually referred to me as the speaker, which greatly surprised me! I’ve been told on occasion that some of my poetry is elliptical and elusive and mysterious, but I had thought that it was at least clear that my main character’s name was different than mine!
You’ve worked extensively as a community organizer. Does that affect your writing?
I first came to poetry through community organizing—because I certainly did not have an affinity for poetry before then. Through my community work, I started meeting community-based spoken word artists and poets (folks like Marlon Unas Esguerra of I Was Born With 2 Tongues or Geologic from Blue Scholars) who were contributing to the community through their poems and I felt inspired by them.
I think of cultural work as an integral part of the movement to make a better world and I feel that our primary task is to inspire and help dream up creative solutions. That’s why in long protests, we sing and chant—to keep up our energies and spirits. That’s why I think what we do as cultural workers is so important.
There was a period of time when I was transitioning to being more of a poet who worked on the page when I worried about the question of accessibility, knowing I was more attracted at the time (and probably still am) to poets who pushed language in innovative and often difficult ways. A good poet friend of mine, Tamiko Beyer, who blogs for Kenyon Review, just wrote up an insightful entry about this subject which points to how I’m thinking about this now:
I’m interested in how to invite “ordinary” readers to participate in poetic sense-making, to encourage them to approach texts not simply to glean content or emotional empathy, but to create meaning in collaboration with the text itself. I think this is important, because poetry has potential to be more radical than other kinds of literature, as the work of reading itself becomes an act of re-imagining how the world can be.
What are you reading/watching/listening to now? What are you working on?
I’ve been involved in the last few months with a project on writing about the Southern California desert, which has been wonderful for me because I’m a transplant from a climate very different than desert. This has helped me make connections to the land and this community in a deeper way. This project started out with my participation at a Dry Immersion Symposium called Mapping the Desert, Deserting the Map. Most of the participant were visual artists and it was great to meet artists like Flora Kao (who abstracts maps and land use patterns and makes paintings out of them). It sparked my interest in the intersections between mapping and writing. I’m currently reading Experimental Geography, which is a fascinating book that showcases the work of artists looking at the intersections between land use and art.
I’ve been discovering African American assemblage artists like Noah Purifoy who, along with fellow artists, made sculpture out of the burning wreckage of the Watts riots. I’ve been looking at and reading everything I can get my hands on about Noah and his contemporaries John Outterbridge and Betye Saar.
The other major strand that I’m following right now is a large-scale project attempting to re-tell the global histories of coolies, “unskilled” workers who were imported after the slave trade was abolished, primarily of Chinese and Indian descent. I’ve recently finished a poetry manuscript which I think is the first book in this series and also the beginning of a novella, which I’d like to keep developing.
Wow, you keep busy! I look forward to reading more of your work in the near future, and hope we can feature it on Molossus.