by Justin Yau-Luu | Contributing Writer
Ching-In Chen’s recombinant (Kelsey Street Press, 2017) is an experimental text, one reverent of multiple histories that have been cast off or forgotten. Chen’s use of form (especially erasure) places the onus on the reader to interrogate for themselves the feelings of absence, as well as giving hope in a possible reconstructive reconciliation. It was an honor to have a phone conversation with Chen just weeks before the collection was awarded the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for transgender poetry.
What was the process like writing and putting together recombinant?
That’s not an easy question to answer. This book came out of a larger project, and I will say the earlier parts are not in the manuscript. The larger part of this book took around ten years; the earliest poem in the book was written around seven years ago.
Having read your earlier work in conversation with some colleagues, they’ve pointed out there’s a distinct difference the work recombinant is doing compared to previous projects. Do you feel recombinant is distinct or is it connected?
I would say some of the obsessions I have are with memory and history, particularly with the histories of Asians in the Americas, diaspora history, and specifically Chinese American history. I think a lot of that interest comes from the fact that this kind of history wasn’t taught to me—I had to learn through community efforts outside of a formal K-12 structure or on my own. Part of that lineage is thinking about the lineage of queer, genderqueer, and trans folks as well.
If I’m thinking about the first book that I published, The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2009)—all those issues were in that book, but in a different way. That book is more narrative and focuses on the story of one person and then opens up. In terms of recombinant, I was working with a different scale. I would say there’s a story and a narrative that surfaces especially in the middle of the book, and then other narratives intermingled throughout. For me, it doesn’t progress from a single story—there are multiple threads that arrive and then it becomes much more diffuse.
What space did you find the most beneficial for your writing process, knowing you are a Kundiman Fellow?
Kundiman is a really important community to me, especially to be connected to other Asian American poets, having not had any access when I was growing up to what an Asian American poet was. When I first started Kundiman, it was for poets only. Now it’s expanded to include fiction writers during the retreat with some intensives for nonfiction writers so it’s a little broader. Having Asian American poetry teachers was life-changing because I had never had that before in a formal educational setting. But even more important to me is the network that you become a part of, the collaborators you meet, the invitations to the cool projects other Kundiman fellows, faculty and staff are workin on because I think a lot of the projects I have been involved in have been through Kundiman. It helps to foster this idea that you are in conversation with other writers in this lineage before you, and part of that is being in the conversation around Asian American poetry and poetics with other folks. For instance, a lot of Kundiman fellows are working with speculative poetry. I think there were small pockets of this work being done previously, but now it seems like a growing stream of work which is in conversation with one another—so we’ve been sharing work together at national gatherings such as Split This Rock and moving forward to working on an Asian American speculative poetry anthology together.
What’s something you see happening in the poetry world that excites you?
I think it is really exciting that there has been a lot more work that has been published and is being curated in trans and genderqueer poetics and poetry. That has been really amazing to observe and be part of that community of writers. There’s also been a community and network that has been formed around trans poetics and I’m excited to see where that goes. There are some folks, like Trish Salah, who have been teaching trans cultural production for a long time as well as the Troubling the Line anthology, co-edited by Trace Peterson and tc tolbert, but there are also newer convergences such as Winter Tangerine’s workshop for trans and GNC writers, which has been organized by jayy dodd. More possibilities out there now than even just a few short years ago.
A big question—what’s a book you think everyone should read?
A book that really opened me up to the landscape for me of what’s possible in poetry is Dance Dance Revolution by Cathy Park Hong. The idea of the nuances of language and incorporating many other imprints of languages with persona and narrative—and just the sheer ambition of that book blew open what poetry could be for me. In conjunction with that, Craig Santos Perez’s From Unincorporated Territory series also did that in different ways for me. A lot of the threading happening in recombinant is inspired by his books.
What’s a writing exercise/ a writing secret that everyone should try?
I frequently write against myself. I make little rules for myself. A lot of times it’s something that I would never desire to do in a regular context. It’s a way for me to push my poetics and my comfort level. In The Heart’s Traffic, a lot of the poems are in specific forms I’ve never written in before. I read somewhere that a double sestina was impossible so I used that form as a writing goal for myself, to use the form to try to move forward the narrative of what I was working on in that project. Thinking about what I’m comfortable with in my style, and then giving myself a restriction or constriction, tricks me into writing something I likely wouldn’t have written otherwise.
What’s coming next for you?
I’m working on a speculative prose poem series, possibly expanding to a lyric essay that is responding to flooding and personal and public disaster. The public disaster is an ecological disaster, like Hurricane Harvey. I’m thinking a lot about the air quality where I live and also where I work since Harvey, thinking about the chemicals released into the air. In addition, shortly before Harvey, the neighborhood I was living in was under heavy speculation and my landlord ended up losing their house to foreclosure—so we had two days to move out of our house. One of the most surreal moments during Hurricane Harvey was unpacking our boxes and trying to move them higher while watching the surrounding streets fill up with water. So in a sense, that situation forced me to think about public disaster through the lens of personal disaster.
I’ve also been working with a group of collaborators in Houston to curate performances around trans, intersex, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming writers and artists in response to conversations with local communities in the area. We organized a story circle for local community members where we gathered stories about safety and healing, and we are planning two public performances and installations. One in August featured Dee Dee Watters, Vanessa Brandon, Koomah and Wo Chan; a second cycle will take place towards the end of the year.
Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi/Red Hen Press, 2009) and recombinant (Kelsey Street Press, 2017). Born of Chinese immigrants, they are a Kundiman, Lambda, Callaloo and Watering Hole Fellow and a member of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundations writing communities. A community organizer, they have worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston, as well as helped organize the third national Asian Pacific American Spoken Word and Poetry Summit in Boston. Chen is also the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press, 2011) and Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press, 2009). A graduate of Tufts University, they earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside and a PhD at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. They currently teach creative writing at Sam Houston State University, where they are a poetry editor for the Texas Review. (www.chinginchen.com)
Justin Yau-Luu is a scholar and poet from Seattle, Washington. Their work focuses on queer identity and first-generation Asian American experiences. They drink at least three cups of green tea a day and think pit bulls are the cutest dogs in the world.