Elegies, Allergies, and Other Elusions: Marilyn Chin Talks Hard Love




POET OF CONTRADICTIONS, poignant sentiment, beat-your-ass toughness, and unexpected humor, Hong Kong­-born, Oregon-raised Marilyn Chin reflects a sensibility marinated in the traditions of the East and West. In Hard Love Province (2014), her fourth volume of poetry and winner of the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, she composes elegies for a deceased lover that combine ageless paeans to the moon radiating through the camellias with earthy contemplations of her lover, “asleep on his side, cradling / His own soft sacks,” sometimes speaking of lotuses and melons, other times of loogies and maquiladoras. Chin cooks up pastiches the old Modernists wished they could handle, herself a polyglot medium making polyphonic poems that resonate with the voices of her cross-millennial, intercultural discourse with the dead and her feisty ruminations on our pop cultural present. In her experiments with the quatrain, that infinitely extensible unit of the ballad, that perpetually self-contained unit of the Chinese jue-ju, she sometimes speaks with the lofty reserve of a reproachful phenomenologist, as in “Formosan Elegy”:

Birth and death     the same blackened womb
Birth and death     the same white body bag
Detach     detach     we enter the world alone
Detach     detach     we leave the world bone lonely

Sometimes with the insistence of a contemporary devotee to an impudent Zen exercise, as in “Cougar Sinonymous”:

Who is the Buddha     a shit-wiping gumstick
Who is the Buddha     a painter’s triptych
Who is the Buddha     he is naked     utterly naked
Who is the Buddha     a stele     a herdboy     a sweet nothing

And all the while liberally scattering saucy salutes to female sexuality:

What they say about a woman at forty-five
Too late to live     too soon to die
My wine is bittersweet     my song is wry
My yoni still tight     my puma is on fire

In this conversation, she discusses her friendly feud with Ezra Pound, her role as a translator of culture, the personal and the public in the elegy, and the disappointments of wine.

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IRENE HSIAO: Does it change a Chinese American poet’s relationship to the Tang dynasty poets once T. S. Eliot declares that “Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time”?

MARILYN CHIN: I don’t want Pound to have the last word on Chinese poetry. A lot of Asian American writers don’t want to be Asian anymore. They don’t want to be Chinese. They think it’s a post-Asian era. Is it okay for Pound, [Amy] Lowell, [Kenneth] Rexroth, and [Gary] Snyder to be influenced by Chinese poetry, and not okay for Marilyn Chin, who studied Chinese poetry all her life, to show off her knowledge? To “make it new,” might just mean a Chinese American woman poet writing some badass polyvocal poems to take on the Modernists. I am not afraid of my “Chineseness” and I’m not afraid of my “Americanness.” I begin the day reading Li Bai, Tu Fu, the Shijing. Some of us have to do this. It’s very important to me that I leave that mark, that I write this hybrid poetry. I want to showcase the brilliance of both literary traditions. 

When I was reading some of your poetry yesterday, I was thinking about the allusions: I get some of them, and I don’t get some of them, and then wondered — does the normal reader get them? Am I not a normal reader? But really, for whom do you write?

Well, I write for a wild-girl Chinese American poet-scholar-reader-weird brainiac like you. Why not write for the best possible reader — the most informed and enthusiastic reader — one who loves poetry from a variety of traditions? Why write for a lazy, unimaginative audience? With the assumptions that the dude won’t look things up in Wikipedia. The dude will be captivated and will look things up if the poem is worthy of his attention. You might as well please yourself and your friends. And speak against whomever you want to speak against. Like Pound!

Perhaps, instead of thinking about the normal reader, let’s think about the abnormal reader, an informed outlier, a really smart student of poetry, who might have all her senses open. And who might look things up in the (God forbid) brick-and-mortar library. One must never underestimate the reader.

Let’s look at this one haiku in my sequence called “25 Haiku”:

The frog jumps into the ancient pond: she says, no, I am not ready

1)    It’s a haiku and is an allusion to the iconic “frog poem” written by the father of the haiku — the grandmaster Bashō.
2)   On second reading, it’s perverting and subverting the original frog haiku by having this woman’s voice saying, “no, I am not ready,” which sexualizes and feminizes the original.
3)   The fact that I am using the haiku form to satirize an iconic poem is breaking tradition, but simultaneously I am also paying homage to that tradition, which hopefully renews the tradition. 

Or, if you don’t know the iconic Bashō haiku allusion, you might just like the weird frog image, or might like the “she” and wonder what does she mean, “I am not ready.” And suddenly realize, oh, she is being nasty.

That one line, or in this case a poem, might hit multiple registers and meanings. These puzzles that the poet sets for herself — are fun.

It’s extra fun when I read this series out loud. The poem becomes performative. The audience may or may not know the Bashō allusion, but is still captivated by the insouciance of the sequence.

The poet’s work is almost always intertextual — the frog image “leaps” back to pay homage to Bashō and comes back to the here and now, to the body and the imagination of this wild girl Chinese American poet, and is given a new albeit subverted meaning.

In Hard Love Province, unlike my other books, I didn’t include footnotes. I wanted to see if there was some possibility of reading without the notes. But I already had a couple of students complain — they wanted the notes! Maybe I’ll put them on my website or something. I tried to incorporate some notes in the titles to let the reader know that I am imitating Bai Juyi or Meng Haoran, and then they can research the poem if they want to.

If they can figure out what to research! There’s the moment when everything becomes questionable, when I’m not sure if what I’m seeing is allusion, invention, or translation. Do you think of your work as translating culture?

I began as a translator. I worked for the International Writing Program in Iowa where I got my MFA. That’s where I met Ai Qing and translated some of his work. The act of translation changed my life — the act of looking up characters and contemplating binomes and semantic and phonetic radicals — the act of getting things wrong and willing the words to make them right. The training made me a better poet. Dorothy Wang writes about my feud with the translators in her book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Those white male translators just flatten everything — make everyone sound Zen — Li Bai, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei all sound the same! So I’m trying to revive the Tang dynasty poets. Those guys dominate the scene since Pound. That I’m trying to translate culture is right. I have this need to talk back to all these people, having been such a nice Chinese girl all my life.

Oh, have you been? I was led to believe that you were a wild child! Or is that a persona you put on in your poems?

I’m a poetry nerd, right? So I can’t be that wild. I spent my youth trying to read poetry from five languages —

Well, Li Bai is drinking and wandering in the woods —

But I can’t drink! I’m allergic! I’m one of those Chinese people who turns bright red, and I start itching, and I have an asthma attack!

It’s such a shame!

A freaking shame!

So I have a question about the elegy …

The allergy?

No, though I’m curious how this allergy has shaped your poetry, since you can’t be drunk. I mean, here you are, denying two traditions of poetry, Li Bai and Baudelaire!

I should be more self-destructive.

The elegies in Hard Love Province, your latest book — this relates to my question about the ideal reader. Isn’t it kind of corrupt to create for anyone other than yourself? Who is the reader of the elegy meant to be, or what is she meant to do, other than be a bad substitute for the person you really wish you were speaking to?

The elegy is about loss, and about yearning for the person you’ve lost. But the muse will turn that personal elegy into a public one. “Beautiful Boyfriend” began as a personal loss, but it turns into a war memorial by the end of the poem. There’s a lot of military in San Diego — there’s a big Navy base and there’s Camp Pendleton. I have several students whose husbands were deployed in Afghanistan, in Fallujah. In “Beautiful Boyfriend,” I begin by mourning Don [Chin’s lover, who passed away in 2011], but the camera would focus on collective loss from the point of view of a military wife. One of my students lost her husband in Iraq. So the quatrains move around — I call them movable quatrains, floating quatrains.

Does that mean they can be read in a different order?

Yes, they can be, but the point is that the imagination is moving around, from Don to southeast San Diego, Little Sudan, Burma, and so on. The poem doesn’t stay with the beloved. He gets a Buddhist send-off and a seven-gun salute. I wanted the spirit to move around, the imagination to float. I worked hard on my craft to make the quatrains look free-flowing, wistful even, but with total artistic control. It’s all artifice, but from the soul.

Any particular loss seems so insurmountable — can it be diffused through the culture?

I wanted to write a book of elegies, and I was thinking of what form the elegy would take. The quatrain — the eastern quatrain, the jue-ju — is self-contained, but one could leave them open. I was studying the jue-ju from Li Bai and Tu Fu, but I was also looking at Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, these women who wrote tight, vivid quatrains in the Western tradition. I wanted to meld the two worlds, and I thought the quatrain would work, so I tried to float them around in this book. One could read this book from beginning to end like one long poem, and one could also take a quatrain or two and contemplate it.

I think it’s really interesting that you chose the quatrain for that. You’ve probably read Tennyson’s In Memoriam — that’s also a long poem of mourning, or many short poems, and he, too, uses the quatrain as his building block. And it makes me think, this is an act of mourning someone for whom you cannot finish mourning. You just have to keep going on. It can’t be “Lycidas,” where you’re done and you move on. It was years of something endless because the person was irreplaceable. And how do you do it? How do you go on? And how do you let yourself stop mourning? How do you ever let yourself stop?

Mourning is a long process; I couldn’t get out of bed for about a year after Don died. I taught my classes and gave readings — but I was very sad. Nobody knew how sad I was, not even myself. In the sequence, I try to stop and make raucous jokes because one can’t just dwell in sadness, you know? I had to stop and tell scatological jokes and have some sex and write some wild haiku, which are surprising because one expects haiku to be very pristine and contemplate nature. But those haiku are just outrageous, in-your-face outrageous. I had to break form and break sadness, break the mourning. You can be like kowtow kowtow kowtow — you can do that forever and not get out of your pain.

What do you think happens to the body in loss? You have these moments that are so earthy and kind of vulgar where you seem to be acknowledging the splendorous mortality of the body.

You remember your beloved through sex as well, right? That’s the thing you miss about him. He’s dead. He’s gone. You can’t have that physical presence. Hélène Cixous says we write with our bodily juices, and we do. I don’t want to essentialize and say that we women only write with our vulvas, but it’s so obvious! We celebrate this body, because we’re not going to have it for long. I retired from full-time teaching this year, because I have these fertile years coming. I think they’re going to be very rich. I still have lots of ideas, and we have to celebrate the body. Right now, poets have become very heady. I want to feel this moment on earth. I want to show that, yes, I am mourning the death of this body — and celebrate the body and feeling. That’s an F-word. We’re not supposed to feel anything. We’re supposed to be ironic, post-race, post-body …

How can we be post-race?!

Yeah, look what happened in Ferguson.

Yes, but where are Asian Americans in that scheme of things? 

We’re not in that dialogue. We’re not black or white. There’re too many of us at Harvard and the UCs. The prevailing powers don’t believe we’re one of them. They hire us, expecting us to be quiet and courteous and smart, but not too smart to show them up. They want trained poodles but with straight hair. There is that short invisible leash of power that they will over us. And we always hit that bamboo ceiling. I always want to write, especially in my fiction, about the kind of racism that Asian Americans are subject to. It’s insidious but people have not really talked about it in a cogent or exhaustive manner. There’s a lot that’s going on subcutaneously in this society. There’s resentment against us; they don’t really want us to own that American dream.

Can you say more about how you plan to write this work?

I want to get real raunchy and demonic in the work. People hate Poe for instance. They hate his poetry because of his “Raven” and the bells bells bells bells! I was rereading some of it the other day, and he was such a tortured soul! I was looking at them, and most poets say they hate those poems, but they survived. His tales are just weird. So I’m writing more weird tales and I’m looking at the fu, the long line, parallel couplets. I want to merge Whitman and Ginsberg with fu — long-line expositions. On the one hand, I love precision. When I was writing these quatrains, I loved tinkering with one word, two words, even the space between the words, the breath. And in my next book of poems I want to see if I can try a more effusive, ecstatic line. I’m working with space, silences. When one reads those Chinese poems, one can contemplate the spaces as well as the characters. To grieve is one thing, but the silences between the harsh words, the weeping, the inner self-condemnation, and the rages and wailing and the abstract pings and phonemes — to me, the silences are just as important. The silence, the breath, is where we hold both grief and forgiveness.

The last lines of the last poem in Hard Love Province, “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony,” are wrenchingly beautiful:

In the land of      missing      pronouns

Sun     is a     continuous     performance

And we      my love      are      nothing 

They seem like an extension of my favorite line from Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, “Poetry is a vast orphanage in which you and I are stars.” And I love the way you use the reduplications, which are so normal in Chinese poetry and so weird when they’re in English — of course, it seems normal to me, but what about to the “normal” reader? 

In Chinese poems there are no pronouns. It’s about loss and about perishing, becoming nothing. Cold cold mountains and long long valleys — the Chinese are obsessed with eternity. You can’t see beyond eternity. The words are so extreme and profound and yet the concept seems simple on the surface. How does one translate that feeling of grief that is “grief grief,” that is “deep deep”? It is inexhaustible. The Chinese have always tried to max out that feeling.

It’s this plenitude but it’s also this big blank, like you can just not get there.

It’s beyond words. It’s beyond description. In my first draft, I wrote out some characters because I wanted to see the reduplications, like chang chang, the valleys. Sheng sheng — deep deep. I wrote them out to feel and see what they’re all about. I was thinking about precision — it is in many ways the secret of poetry, if you can be precise but let that precision emanate and transform.

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Irene Hsiao is a writer and dancer. Her essay “Broken Chord: Sounding Out the Ideogram in Marilyn Chin’s Rhapsody in Plain Yellow” appeared in Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. in 2012. Her book of photography and text, Letter from Taipei, was published in 2014.


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