This interview was conducted, in person, in February 2005.
Pilar Graham met with Marilyn Chin to discuss her inspirations, revelations, and the “larger than self” transcendence towards poetic identity, voice, and how writing socially conscious poetry was the drive behind her book of poetry, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, (2002. W.W. Norton).
Graham: Who was the first poet that introduced you to poetry? Whose work really brought you into the fold?
Chin: In Hong Kong, my grandmother used to carry me on her back and chant Chinese poems to me. At the age of three, the first poet I loved was Liu Bin Huang, and his poem began with “goose, goose, goose.” Although my grandmother was illiterate and couldn’t write, she had committed hundreds of poems to her memory, and there began my fascination with poetry.
I was fortunate enough to have had a lot of fine teachers: Ralph Salisbury at Oregon, and the Chinese scholar and poet Cheng Ch’ing Mao from Amherst introduced me to the Tang dynasty poets. Donald Justice and Jane Cooper at Univeristy of Iowa, and Denise Levertov at Stanford Univeristy. I had a couple of teachers in high school that forced me to read the classics… it’s all important.
Graham: In an interview with Meridians you mentioned that Rhapsody In Plain Yellow is both a tribute and a painful elegy. Does that still stand true, and what connections have you made and/or new realizations have you made in regards to this book since that interview?
Chin: I realize now that Rhapsody is a huge canvas for formal variations and play. I was playing with the quatrain in Chinese and the quatrain in English, like the Blues on Yellow poem.
There’s a sonnet series I called “shattered sonnets” in which I literally sat on the floor at Yaddo with my cuticle scissors and cut up some old sonnets and rearranged them like a puzzle. They were ghazals and my attempt at a sonatina. Some poems sang like slow elegies while others like immigrant anthems.
The muse wanted to sing and I just stepped aside and let her.
Graham: What are you currently working on?
Chin: I am working on a book of poetic tales. Some are remakes of classical Chinese revenge and ghost tales. Some are political fables. There are a few raucous grandmother tales and some sexy love shorts. I’ve been working on these for fifteen years.
Graham: In an interview you conducted with Maxine Hong Kingston (Melus, Winter: 1989) you told Kingston that you always think back to the Tang Dynasty when you write poetry, speaking for all the people who didn’t have a chance to speak, becoming the voice/medium. Do you still find this to be true years later and, most importantly, what has this journey back taught you about writing poetry and your sense of self?
Chin: I’ve always said that for the minority poet, the self in the poem must represent something larger than the self. I say this not to be preachy, but I believe that this is an accurate portrayal of what I do, and what a lot of minority poets do. There is a personal dimension to our poems, but almost always the poems open up to the story of the tribe, of nation, often laced with grievance and despair. Our identities are not static. We are multidimensional, variegated creatures. The journey of the self is a progressive journey. I don’t believe we travel that road alone.
Graham: Recently there has been a lot of attention and continuing debate about the poet and the MFA programs in the United States. What is your honest take on this?
Chin: I always tell my students to consider the MFA program as the new Parisian salon. It’s too expensive to live near the Sorbonne and hang around the cafés and eat “cakies” at Gertrude Stein’s apartment. It’s all about community, really. About having comrades to look at your work, about having like-minded poetry lovers to kick around ideas with. The MFA years should be a wonderfully rich apprenticeship. The end product, of which is a thesis, is a working draft of a first book. What could be more wonderful then to take a couple of years off of your mundane life to devote yourself to poetry?
I am one of the first Asian American poets to come out of Univeristy of Iowa… I learned a lot from my teachers. But, ultimately, it’s up to the poet to transcend the workshop and find her own voice. There is no magical formula as to how to grow a poet. The fertile fields in Iowa only grow cattle corn… corn that humans can’t eat. If we write “McPoems,” it’s because we’re lacking in imagination; we can’t blame the workshop for our own failing.
Graham: Who are some American poets that have strongly influenced you? For example, Larry Levis, Whitman, or others?
Chin: Funny you mention Levis. Larry was my teacher at Iowa, but I don’t remember his tutelage somehow. I was probably going through some silly grad student meltdown and his workshop became a hazy blur in my memory. This is why I always tell my students to “show up” and “pay attention.” Otherwise, a great moment could happen without you!
Everybody influences me. I am “all immigrant ears.” I absorb everything, and then, pick and choose what I can actually use. I must say that I owe a lot to American women poets: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and the Feminist movement. They all gave me courage to speak.
I reread, “Song of Myself” (Whitman), almost every year. I just reread, Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” and was blown away by it. I try to teach Ethridge Knight and Gwen Brooks every year to keep their names alive. I am a true “poetry geek” and I read a lot, and I am influenced by everybody.
Graham: If readers of your writing tend to overlook something, what is it?
Chin: That’s a good question! My perfect reader would be someone who can read Classical Chinese, and who is well versed in both Eastern and Western poetry history. I think it is difficult for a reader to catch everything. I believe that I am an activist and that I write socially conscious poetry, but with all the pyrotechnics of masterful art. I want to prove to the detractors who believe that politics and poetry are mutually exclusive. Good art, and passionate ideas, work together in a wonderful braiding of dissonance and harmony. I want my readers to pay attention.
Graham: What are your thoughts on the “lying” poem? For example, writing a poem for a grandmother that has not yet deceased?
Chin: Listen… if you lie about your grandmother dying, that’s morally wrong and is very bad luck. My own grandmother would say, “You should say, grandmother, grandmother, live for ten-thousand years!” You shouldn’t imagine her dead! But dead grandmothers are a symbol of a greater loss, the loss of a whole culture, of important values. If you have to lie a bit to get there sooner, so be it. It’s all in the execution.
Poetry is supreme artifice. Truth can be told in quatrains, in iambic pentameter, sprawled on the page like Rorschach—the flora and fauna painted with a heightened brush. Pathetic fallacies, galore. In poems, squirrels speak and Gods thunder. Did I serve calabash to my father and murder him? In the poem, “The Song of the Giant Calabash” about patricide, it’s a dark revenge fantasy. Literally it’s a lie, of course, and I did not murder my father with calabash. But, on the metaphorical level, the Chinese gourd has magical properties, and it may make your wish come true. Patricide means the end of patriarchal oppression. I believe it is important in this juncture of my life to kill my father psychically. I need to bury him with the hatchet and move on with my life.
Graham: What do you find to be “urgent material” that you are currently trying to uncover in your own writing?
Chin: Goodness, I’m writing about race, again! And love! I’m writing love poems. I believe that love is an urgent matter, given the alternative is hate, intolerance, and war. Indeed, thank goodness, I continue to find subject matter that irritates and upsets me, so that I can wail on.
Pilar Graham is a poet and creative nonfiction writer. Her poems and essays have appeared in several journals and anthologies, such as Sundog, Pithead Chapel Press, Haunted Waters Press – From the Depths, Blackberry, Poetry Midwest, In the Grove and San Joaquin Review. In addition, Pilar has served as a poetry editor and judge for both local and national events. Pilar received her MFA in poetry from California State University, Fresno. Pilar divides her time teaching at California State University, Monterey Bay and at Fresno City College in California. Any free time is spent in the southern Sierra where she lives, collecting new poems in nature—typically wearing her stilettos.