Blessed Be # 11 with Ching-In Chen
Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books) and recombinant (Kelsey Street Press) and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press; AK Press) and Here is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press). A Kundiman, Lambda, Watering Hole and Callaloo Fellow, they are part of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation writing communities. Their work has appeared in The Best American Experimental Writing, The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, and Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. A senior editor of The Conversant, they serve on the Executive Board of Thinking Its Presence: Race, Advocacy, Solidarity in the Arts as the Director of Membership and Social Media. At Sam Houston State University, they are an assistant professor of poetry and poetry editor of the Texas Review. www.chinginchen.com
BBF: Can you share a bit about your poetry origin story?
CIC: I first became a writer in the second grade when I chose to change the name I was gifted by my birth family, Ching-In, which means Happiness in Mandarin. As a young child from an immigrant family, one of a handful of non-white kids in my elementary school, I grew up learning to norm my parents’ words so that they didn’t stand out. To be generic — not to be betrayed by strange or queer syntax — was to be accepted.
But I wasn’t accepted, regardless of how I spoke and how I tried to norm my language — and much of my experience with my name was representative of this struggle. Nobody could say my name correctly; my peers called me ChingChong, Chink, ChickenWings and ChopSticks. I wanted desperately to fit in and I thought getting rid of this name would make me normal or at least not stand out. So I asked my family for a different name, Elizabeth, for my birthday gift. And my mother took me by the hand to the courthouse and granted this birthday request. Early on, I recognized the power and possibility words held to transform your reality.
As that ostracized kid, stories — and the words which made up those stories — were the friends which kept me company. I identified as a storyteller, but I never thought poetry was for me. In middle and high school, I thought of poetry as a formal craft from the past which felt inaccessible to me. Part of the reason — we were reading a very narrow subset of poetry which didn’t do justice to the wide range of poetry lineages from across the world and even within the English language. Instead, I spent much of my time imagining stories about kids who were friendlier and kinder than those I actually interacted with in real life.
It wasn’t until I was doing community work and came across spoken word performers such as I Was Born With Two Tongues that I began to understand that this kind of storytelling also existed in a form of oral storytelling which was part of the poetic tradition. This also coincided with a time in my life when the bulk of my energy was taken up with community organizing and working at an Asian American civil rights non-profit. I wasn’t able to devote the kind of sustained energy and time that writing longer stories and prose needed; what I had was the length of a subway or bus ride. The short form was a creative form I could practice in short bursts.
Each time I learn about different poetic forms which make use of sonic possibilities (such as the bop and dub poetry) and visual possibilities (for example, concrete poetry and electronic poetry) as well as poetry from a wider range of lineages (such as the zuihitsu and haibun), another door opens. Another experiment begins.
BBF: What are you passionate about?
CIC: I was teased and excluded at a young age for being different (as a child of immigrants, as Asian American, as being “queer” or rather, strange). That ostracizing taught me the oppressiveness of the idea of “the normal,” based on who had the power to define what and who would embody “the normal.” This became the basis of my own commitment to making the kind of community which could be large and have space for many others. In that vein, I’m passionate about making food where everybody has to pitch in and contribute such as dumplings or hot pot.
BBF: Who/what are your influences?
CIC: It’s always changing because I’m one of those writers which needs to feed my writing constantly with new inputs. A thread which unites much of my recent writing is that it’s a response to/towards the places where I live and their hidden histories. I’m always negotiating a relationship to those places because I often don’t feel comfortable where I am, even if it’s where I grew up. Part of the way that I make relationship to these places is to learn about their communal histories — what has been hidden or overlooked, what spaces exist in the margin, and how they have been represented, either in remnants of evidence and official documents or in the imagination. For this reason, I am also very influenced by work in other art forms. For recombinant, I was influenced by Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory series, M. NourbeSe Philips’ Zong! and Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution!
BBF: How might you describe a queer poetics?
CIC: The easiest would be to say that it’s representational — that a queer poetics arises from queer bodies. But that’s also too equational and doesn’t match up with what I think the pulse of a queer poetics is.
If I’m following that pulse –
Below the surface, under the radar, in the stitches. Not only “strange,” but out of the normal or expected. Not conforming to societal expectations, which might extend to not conforming to genre or literary expectations. An experimental edge. Oppositional, a slight bent of wild.
BBF: What is your relationship to magic/ritual? Does it impact your creative/political/personal work/life?
CIC: For some time now, I’ve thought of the act of creating my work as part of an ongoing ritual — the simplest one is trying to show up for/at the page. I’ve never been a very religious person, but I do think of my ongoing writing practice as a chance to tune into my own intuition. I do this by conjuring through chance — drawing fragments from what’s in the room and what’s in front of me on the page and re-arranging to make some kind of pattern which eventually emerges. That part of the making relies on me trusting my intuition to lead me somewhere hopefully fruitful — underneath the surface of whatever question I’m thinking about. I’m looking for the place I can’t get to on my own — I need some kind of transmutation through the act of making, processing, re-visioning.
I’ve grown to rely on this process, like relying on meditation or exercise. I can tell that my work-life balance is really off if I’m not doing my writing practice — and I have to work hard to re-align and re-center myself.
BBF: I would love to ask you some questions about your latest release, recombinant out from Kelsey Street Press. Can you speak a bit about your process writing this book? Can you share some of the themes in the book?
CIC: This project came out of an obsession that I’ve had since I was 16 years old and discovered that there is a history of Asians in America — something I was never taught in school and knew about, but ended up learning about through an Asian American youth leadership program. Being taught that history shifted the way that I thought about myself in relation to the specific place I grew up (North Shore in Massachusetts) and to the larger country.
Much of this book began through my investigation of the historical residue of places I have lived in — from the Chinese businesses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which were targeted in the late 1800’s in an anti-Chinese riot, to the history of the formation of the Asian Export Art collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
When I was writing the poems in recombinant, I often thought of the information as inputs which made up various threads I wove together, almost in a discordant symphony, trying to follow them to see what paths they would take. Some of the inputted threads were historical official sources such as census documents, Sanborn insurance maps and academic articles on a specific incident in history; some of the inputted threads were speculated; others addressed a speaker’s journey in making sense of this info. I was also interested in what kinds of spark juxtaposing unlike threads would make. I often re-used or re-combined various words used in one thread to come up with another kind of speculation or narrative.
BBF: I am so curious and taken with the forms of these poems and the story the form itself tells as well as the way it suggests the reader interact with the work. I read various poems multiple times in different ways altering the relationship of fragments on the page as I read. Can you talk a bit about the reader’s role in this work?
CIC: I wanted to make poems which a reader could approach in multiple ways and which could change depending on what choice the reader makes. In some ways, this spoke to my own process as a reader of various fragments (missing and present), trying to make sense of them by testing out different combinations. This speaks also to the way that different voices can inhabit the same space and how forcing them together for some type of interaction creates multiple layers of interest to what the poem investigates. This is one of the reasons why I think poetry as a form is an exciting structure to work through its content.
BBF: I am curious about the various forms of archive that show up in this work; testimony, census, letters, various forms of governmental documentation. I wonder then about the role of archive in this work; is recombinant an archive in itself? If so how & why?
CIC: I do think of recombinant as an archive — one which is a miscellany of multiple types of information which the reader then needs to sort through actively. Though I haven’t been writing as many recently, I have been interested in the zuihitsu form for a long time, a Japanese hybrid form attending to a certain kind of intentional chaos which maps a specific kind of specificity of the speaker’s vision. This kind of archive also maps this singularity — and is just as much about the gatherer of the archive and the reader as it is about what makes up the archive. I see a symbiotic relationship between all of them.
BBF: I am curious about the role of family; mother/father and “they-child” in this work, can you talk a bit about the significance of family, intergenerational relationship as it relates to this book?
CIC: I was thinking about alternate or queer lineages when writing recombinant — how hard it is for many of us to access those queer familial lineages, either through a willful dis-remembering on the parts of our families or just a natural loss which occurs through the passage of time. For so many of us, the idea of chosen family is so important because we have been discarded by our families or even accepted in a way which elides some part of who we are. In a way, writing this book was a way to gather or to speculate a queer family lineage — and there are important overlaps with the idea of this other kind of lost communal history.
BBF: Can you talk about the various voices that inhabit this book and also the significance of ghosts?
CIC: Massachusetts, where I spent the majority of my growing-up years, always felt haunted to me growing up. We had the history of the witches in Salem, Massachusetts, but I didn’t really understand until I was older that Massachusetts was a site of genocide. This history was one of the histories which wasn’t taught to me and which shifted my own understanding of myself as a citizen and member of the community where I grew up. Ironically, I had to leave this community and then search it out when I moved back to Massachusetts to work in the Asian American communities.
The Fan and Basket letter series come out of my research around the history of Massachusetts, as connects to the Peabody Essex Museum, which was founded by some of the founding fathers of Massachusetts to store their wealth, which included items of conquest and boast.
The more narrative section in the middle of recombinant is very loosely (and speculatively) based on a matriarch who is a human trafficker named Sister Ping — in this story, I was exploring the history of an “alternative mother” and her relationship with a gender-non-conforming child who disappears.
BBF: Do you consider this book, your work implicitly/explicitly queer?
CIC: I consider this book queer, but I wonder how it’s read by others. I never like to be explicit so am always curious what readers/viewers take away from the work.
BBF: Is there anything you wish I would have asked but didn’t?
CIC: I’ve loved these questions — they show a deep listening/viewing of the work, which I appreciate. I’m one of those writers who love hearing others’ readings of the work and think other interpretations are just as valid as my own intentions for the making of the work.