Wendy Chin-Tanner: The TNB Self-InterviewBy Wendy Chin-Tanner
September 18, 2010
What are the best pieces of advice you’ve received about writing?
I’ve had the very good fortune of encountering a number of generous and inspirational mentors who have shared some fantastic nuggets about craft as well as the distribution side of the business. Here are three of my favorites.
1. On craft, the poet and creative writing professor Mark Davidov believes that one of the best barometers for whether or not a poem is successful is for the poet to ask herself if she has written a letter to herself or a letter to the universe. The former, which he calls “diary poems,” are limited to an audience for whom the particularities of subject or image resonate, whereas the latter have the potential to vibrate on another level altogether. While I do believe that there is a place for diary poems, I have found this to be a useful guideline nonetheless.
2. After I had spent about an hour over coffee detailing my numerous concerns about putting my work out there, Beth Bosworth, a beloved teacher and fiction writer who has known me since I was twelve, said:
“If you wanna freak out, that’s okay. Some of your worries might even be legitimate. But you’ve put in the work and I think you’re ready, so if you’re gonna freak out, save some time. Do it on your way to the post office.”
3. On how to handle journal submissions, the poet Dorianne Laux said that it was “mainly scut work” and that when your poems are rejected, “you just make a couple of changes, stick them in a new envelope, and send them someplace else.”
Who are your main influences?
I have been a longtime fan of Anne Sexton, going back to her now and again at different stages in my life and getting different things from her at different times. And Sylvia Plath is in there too, though my appreciation for her has arisen mostly post-motherhood. Vera Pavlova is a newer favorite, derived from my older appreciation of Anna Akhmatova. Louise Gluck, of course. Dorianne Laux, Nancy White, and Bruce Weigl really resonate for me, as does David Ferry sometimes, and much of the time, W.S. Merwin. Perhaps a little weirdly, Philip Larkin can really do it for me when my mood is right, his politics notwithstanding. I’m also a big fan of Catullus.
What are your thoughts on being a Chinese American Female Poet?
As Truman Capote used to say, “Oh, honey, don’t let me commence!” Well, the way I see it, the poet’s individual world is a prism through which we see the universal, and in my case, that prism happens to be Chinese American and female. I don’t shy away from race or gender, but at the same time, I chaff at reductive classifications. I like to think of my poetry, which is to say the cultural sensibilities, sounds, and tropes underlying my work, as quintessentially American and I am very tired of the caught-between-two-cultures narrative. It’s a vicious cycle of what seems to sell and what writers feel compelled to produce as a result. Who gets to speak? Who gets to make art and be paid for it? Who gets to be read? What discourses are reproduced in what is published? Who defines what American means? These are perennially important questions in a culture that is neither post-racial, nor post-gendered. But I do sense that there is more space nowadays for a wider, more non-essentialist range of expression, for the multiplicity of voices out there to be heard. To that end, I suppose one of my projects is to disrupt conventional and received narratives in a way that is perhaps covertly political and overtly subversive without, I hope, sacrificing the quality of the poetry. And addressing the gender component of this question, I would say that if Walt Whitman gets to “sing the body electric” and “contain multitudes,” then I should think that I might make the same claims about my uterus. It’s time for the white male body to no longer be the benchmark for normativity.
It is a common belief that poetry can only be appreciated and written by people who have a certain type of education or a certain sensibility, but poetry is in fact one of the oldest and most universal forms of cultural expression. The human heart seems to have an unabated appetite for it. W.S. Merwin says that through poetry we attempt to say what is unsayable, and in that vein, poetry can also speak through what the writing leaves unsaid, what is written, as it were, between the lines. Rachel Blau DuPlessis speaks of this, of “writing between the lines,” as a subversive feminist act.
What is your poetry about?
My poems are an attempt to answer my questions about the world and how to live in it. They contain the notes on what I have discovered so far. And though I resist the label of “confessional” or “autobiographical,” it is true that my work is informed by experience, which is the place from which we get verisimilitude and a certain kind of poetic emotional integrity. I do, however, aim to transcend a mere retelling of experience.
How has motherhood influenced your writing?
Being a mother has influenced my writing in many ways. Perhaps one of the most obvious is that my daughter couldn’t give a rat’s ass about my achievements or lack of achievements, literary or otherwise. All she cares about is the quality of our relationship, that I show up for her, and that I am present when I am with her. That has given me an enormous amount of perspective, and along with that, the freedom to fail, which is really what every artist needs. Another thing is that I now have to be a lot more disciplined and focused about how I use my limited time, and that is very helpful for making poetry. I’m way too tired to overthink and obsess about how terrible my writing is – I only have just about enough energy to sit down and do it. On another level, I think the enormous physicality of motherhood has afforded me a certain freedom from the vice-like grip of the mind, allowing for an integration and collaboration between the language of the body and the language of the mind, between the subconscious and the awareness of subjectivity. The act of birthing my daughter on my own terms gave me my body back. It gave me a confidence in and awareness of the power of my body that I had not experienced before. I have stopped distrusting and fearing my body, and that has in some significant way mediated the disconnect between sense data and imaginative data in my work. Jorie Graham speaks about this in an interview with Mark Wunderlich: “Abstraction of emotion is not a use of abstraction that is positive, it seems to me. Abstraction in which the body thinks in its unbodily reaches is truly powerful, necessary, and another story – the crucial metaphysical extension of bodily knowledge.”
Where is your poetry going now?
I think I am moving away from a more narrative style towards embracing a more abstract, metaphorical, and laconic approach. I have been trying to leap more quickly into the centers of my poems. Lately I have been studying Buddhist koans and writing poems that attempt to reclaim in English a form that was originally quite rarefied, privileged, ascetic, and distinctly masculine, and then was later appropriated in a somewhat orientalist new-agey way. My riffs on koans are written from the perspective of a contemporary, sexualized, female layperson.
Apart from poetry, you write graphic novels with your husband Tyler. In fact, he was interviewed for TNB by Uche Ogbuji in June about your latest digital graphic novel, a post-9/11 era Bonnie and Clyde story called “American Terrorist.” What’s been happening with the project since then?
Although the Kickstarter project we’d launched to meet the publishing costs for “American Terrorist” was not ultimately successful, we are continuing to publish the book digitally on the iPhone and the iPad. Chapter 4 was released in July and we have one more chapter to go before the story is completed. We have discovered that we have a loyal international fan base, and so we remain hopeful that one way or another, a hardbound version of “American Terrorist” will come into existence.
How is writing poetry different from writing graphic novels?
In poetry, subtlety and restraint are key because all of the elements that make meaning in a poem reside in the word. In graphic novels, however, the de-coupling of the text from the image creates a certain tension that in the context of sequential storytelling allows for a kind of dramatic narrative that is big and bold, dynamic and full of creative possibility. The processes for making poems and making graphic novels are also very different. Poetry is a solitary business, whereas there is a great deal of collaboration in graphic novels, not only between my husband and myself in the writing and layout process, but between the two of us and the artist, the inker, the colorist, and the letterer. When you get a good team together where each person is responsible for their own area of expertise, the product can be greatly enhanced by the input that comes in at different stages. Tyler and I have been known to make changes to the dialogue or even some elements of story based on how pages might look after they’re colored or lettered. For some people in the industry, that’s considered really late in the game!
Is there any scope for combining poetry and graphic novels?
Actually, one of the next projects that we’re planning is a fantasy romance about reincarnation. There may well be some poetry in that book.
Wendy: I enjoyed reading your interview. The questions you pose are central to everyone: Who defines what American means? Who gets to be read? One great thing about a site like Nervous Breakdown is that it does an end-run around the traditional Machine. It increases exposure for everyone, and it’s better to have more on offer than less.
You use Walt Whitman as a point of reference. Do you like his poetry? I’ve always thought he was over-rated. I’m more comfortable claiming Emily Dickinson as our mother than Whitman as our father.
What you said about parenthood was, I thought, excellent and apt. I look forward to reading more of your work, and particularly the riffs on koans you mentioned, which would be cross-cultural and fascinating, maybe where the American Deep Image meets the Buddhist paradox. Let me know!
Thank you, John, for your careful reading and your interesting question. I am actually not a big fan of Whitman – I find him to be, as you said, overrated, overwrought, and rather overly testicular. But I like the quintessentially American conceit of claiming to simultaneously self-create and be a blank slate for Americanness that is implied by his oft-quoted line. It is a nice point of departure for more progressive alternative notions of American identity. As for poetic foremothers, I happen to love Millay. She is underrated. The poem “Assault” comes to mind.
I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.
I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!