An Interview with Marilyn Chin
While Marilyn Chin certainly has a bone to pick with Ezra Pound’s appropriations of Chinese characters, she nonetheless has happily adhered to his slogan: “make it new.” As one of the most prolific and admired Asian American writers on the poetry scene today, Marilyn keeps readers guessing as each of her successive publications showcases new poetic strategies of what we might call -- for lack of an appropriate, dictionary-backed adjective -- her fusionary poetics. From the rhythm-and-blues inflected poems based on Chinese characters in Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2003) to the genre-bending novel Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (2009), Marilyn’s work delights in offering readers an admixture of culture, language, religion, and politics. In each work, she counterbalances Orientalism and identity politics with her employment of history, lyricism, satire, and bawdy sexuality; the result is a poetics that asserts its Americanness even as it refuses to ignore or romanticize Chinese culture.
I had the good fortune to not only catch a preview of Marilyn’s recently released collection of poetry Hard Love Province (2014), but also to chat with her about the new directions of her work. What follow are her self-described “free-wheeling responses,” a bit about Pound, and an exploration of the new poetic form she’s perfecting: the Chinese American quatrain.
These “weird stories” certainly do take us for a wild ride through uncharted territory that willfully ignores conventional ideas of time and space. Do you see yourself as crafting a new geography of sorts with this volume? How do the departed beings in your poems further stretch that geography?
I’m in my fifties, in the last 15 years I lost my mother, my grandmother and two Loves. I can’t help but to be mournful at this juncture. But, as I’ve said before, my Imagination doesn’t need a visa to roam. Presently, I teach half time in San Diego. I suppose one could consider this place a beautiful exile…but mostly I feel that I am a poet without a home. Last year, in my grief, I meandered around Hong Kong, Tainan, Beijing and Cambridge, MA to find solace from friends. I guess I was avoiding my sadness…I became a mindless global trekker and insomniac. Sometimes I don’t know which time zone I’m waking up to, but it’s a gift to be able to wake up to another perfect day for contemplating poetry. The great poets from Tu Fu to Akhmatova might tell us that “poetry” is a well-tread province, in which one’s citizenship is earned through hard life lessons.
I’ve always been quite taken with the way you negotiate the modernist appropriations and representations of Chinese language and poetry (ahem, Pound). You’re never afraid to engage your ethnic heritage even as you proclaim your Americanness. Were you thinking about these issues explicitly when you began Hard Love Province?
The Chinese poets wrote their quatrains with a quick brush…somehow, the trick is to craft the verses to make them feel open yet complete. And if possible, to utter the truth with one all-knowing stroke. The sum of the myriad quatrains should be more magnificent than the parts. One morning I was startled by a hundred little songbirds singing on my big Juniper tree. I noticed that some were louder and more excitable than others, some were chased by nasty crows, but together they make an amazing symphony.
I’d say that’s an apt metaphor for not only Hard Love Province, but your entire oeuvre—it ranges from elegiac to political and from imagistic to didactic, sometimes all at once.
Hopefully, all these variegated quatrains, some more beautiful than others, some weirder, some more transgressive, will add up to a powerful read.
Interview by Anastasia Turner