5 Questions for Marilyn Chin

PS Managing Editor Marianne Kunkel interviews the Fall 2012 contributor on her “crossed dressing” prose poems

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Marilyn Chin’s books of poems include Rhapsody in Plain Yellow; The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty; and Dwarf Bamboo. Her new book of tales is called Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. Her work is widely anthologized and is taught in classrooms all over the world.

Your series of six poems in the Fall 2012 issue of Prairie Schooner examine the strained relationship between a daughter away at camp and her mother who writes her letters. Only three questions appear in the entire series; the mother is so uninquisitive and quick to judge, it’s sometimes funny. What inspired your use of humor in these poems?

I have been using a lot of humor in my work lately. Sometimes I use humor subtly, sometimes aggressively to expose the contradictions and hypocrisy of human behavior. I also like the satirical edge. The voice of the mother is also the irrational voice within us, filtered through a distorted lens filled with both narcissistic boasting and self-deprecation… Of course, beneath that laughter is a deep sadness. Both my mother and my grandmother, the great matriarchs of my life, are gone, and I would give anything to hear them speak to me face-to-face again!

Mei Ling is portrayed by her family as a disobedient and disruptive young girl who “spurned [her] mother’s milk.” Food and drink show up again and again in these poems; what is gained by demonstrating misbehavior through food? Your descriptions of meals are as satisfyingly lively as Mei Ling herself.

Historically, food has been a useful Chinese American trope. I never tire of using it to color my work. A dish could be tasty or foul, bitter or sweet, it could be spicy and inedible! Sometimes, food is the only vehicle for communication in a family. In the morning the first thing a Chinese mother might ask you is “Have you eaten?”–beginning with a compassionate gesture. Then, she might place some fish congee in front of you and might criticize you for the way you are eating it…and then obsess on how much you are eating or not eating, then many stories and lessons would unfold: it’s all delicious and noxious fun!

Mei Ling’s absence at Poetry Camp is the impetus for these many letters from her mother. Will you speculate on what poems, or letters in response, Mei Ling may write at camp?

Mei Ling, is, of course, totally oblivious when she is at poetry camp. When one goes to an artist colony, one must tune out one’s stuff at home. While Mei Ling is away in a protected imagination zone, trying to receive the muse, it’s actually her immigrant mother who is the true poet, doing her work-a-day chores at home, filled with shenanigans, raucous visions and insults. The mother is the one with the active imagination and is the true inspiration for Mei Ling’s poetry. The reader need not ask “who is the real poet here?”

Why did you decide to present these six poems as a series of letters? What are some of the joys and challenges of writing poems in letter form?

I love the epistolary form. First of all I’m cross-dressing poetry and fiction in these works…the prose poem gives me a secure little one-page canvas; meanwhile I pack in the insane imagery. But I further complicate the pieces with the epistolary/email form–I want to channel my mother, and this is the best way to receive her voice. A cell-phone call won’t do. Third-person narration would be too distant. And, of course, I love Emily Dickinson’s letters almost as much as I love her poetry. They’re really weird. And Keats’ letters are heartbreaking. I want to write more letter-poems and add to the rich tradition.

What new project are you working on? You’ve written several books and garnered so many accomplishments; what directions do you predict for your future work?

I’m finishing up a fab book of lyric poems that is made up of mostly quatrains. I’m working on a book of wild prose poems, in which this series of weird “food” trope/letter poems will serve as a major chapter…I’m working on a fun novel! I believe that I am writing my best work now! I enjoy the process of cross-fertilizing different genres and forms, of creating characters and voices that fly off the page and wreak havoc!