Recent graduates of the Poets House Emerging Writing Fellowship sat down to talk new books, debut poetry collection Blue Hallelujahs by Cynthia Manick and debut chapbook One Day We Become Whites by Chialun Chang. The conversation touched on the editing process, racial identity, spaces to breathe, and poetry partners-n-crime.
CYNTHIA MANICK: So Chialun what do you do for a living? When people ask, do you say you’re a poet?
CHIALUN CHANG: I usually won’t say I’m a poet. I’d say I’m an educator because I’ve been teaching Mandarin for a few years or I’d tell them I work for Belladonna*. However, when I was waiting for my visa and I didn’t have a job, I told people I write poems and their responses were “How can you make a living?” Sometimes, if I sense people are trying to make fun of my accent, interrogate my identity, or show off their successful lives, I’ll them I’m a poet, but what I really mean is, I’m not stupid.
How about you? Do you say you’re a poet?
CM: When people ask, I usually say I work at a nonprofit by day and I’m a writer at night. I just recently started saying “I write poems at night.” But I think I always preface that with my day job because everyone knows poetry isn’t big business. We’re in it because it’s something we have to do; it’s a passion for language. What happened to those days of patrons? If any patrons are out there, where do I apply to get your attention? I don’t know if I’ll ever just say “I’m a poet.” I think I need to work up to it.
CC: I read your book and I’m blown away by the first poem, What I Know About Blues. Can you talk about why this is your opening poem? And the process of creating it?
CM: What I Know About Blues was a poem in stages. I originally started that poem in a class with Hettie Jones called Memory Palace which linked your stored objects of memory with how things sound. I remember creating the last stanza and thinking of all the names I’ve been called or heard in a lifetime. The way we process the names of things are interesting—some things stick while others fade. I finished that poem months later, thinking of the advice you hear and lessons you learn over time. For me that is the blues; it can be hard, soft, happy, painful—but either way it sticks. Originally that poem wasn’t the first in the collection; it was further along in the book. Blue Hallelujahs had been a finalist in a couple of open reading periods, so I decided that I was too close to it to make any changes. I took a manuscript class with Leigh Stein at Brooklyn Poets, and Leigh, Tommy Pico, Mirielle Clifford and others were great at suggesting edits and rearrangements, which included moving that poem to the front. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
CC: I’m also interested in the assigned names in that poem. Can you share some of the names you’ve been called or heard in a lifetime? Why some things stick while others fade?
CM: I think naming things is a part of how we discover our worth. So I’ve heard girl, mami, mamacita, the big one, poet, the quiet one, book nerd, you people, the girl with the glasses, girl with the gap in her teeth, and the funny one. They all stick depending on the memory associated with them. I still remember the first time someone called me smart. For me, the negative names fade when I write about it, get older, or reframe my thinking.
CC: Being named or called certain things have shaped me mentally and physically. From my experiences, these names often wake me up at midnight. When people called me the lively one that usually means I’m too loud or I have too many opinions. I’ve heard men tell me that as a lady, it would be nice if I was quieter. Some names that I’ve been called are intimate and warm. On the other hand, some are a curse, pushing me cold and feeling left out.
CM: You said earlier that you can tell when people are interrogating your identity. Let’s go back to that, how do you interrogate your own identity in One Day We Become Whites?
CC: I came to America in 2010 and I’ve always considered myself as a foreigner with hopes and curiousness for the US’s culture. Somehow, I’ve learned that I have to claim my own identity in an United States system. I read this article, I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black? in The New York Times and it depicted common struggles among the first generation. Coming from Taiwan, we have a complicated identity and confusion through years of colonization. The atmosphere in Orphan of Asia by Zhuoliu Wu still impacts the society. Because I believe every big decision that was made in my life happened for a reason, this collection of poems is like a list of daily questions I ask myself remotely. Why am I here? What happened? What should I answer? I found no matter where I am, in the US or Taiwan, my thoughts, goals, and personality are influenced by US society, in different ways but not inalienable. Coming to the US was like arriving at the source of a river. I never expected myself to find an answer, but it allowed my voice to ask and figure it out.
CM: The first poem has a line that says “you want to find a spot to breathe.” Can you expand on that? Where is that spot for you?
CC: The spot for me is poetry, arts, and people who are similar to me. There’s lots of desire living in the city. Everyone craves a spot in New York and it comforts me. It makes me feel like I’m not lonely or crazy. Do you have a spot to breathe?
CM: I have two thoughts on that. I love the quiet and New York is never totally silent. So I’ve learned to get quiet wherever I am. Whether that’s putting on my headphones and blocking things out, getting trapped into a sci-fi romance, or writing with pen and paper instead of my laptop. All those spaces are places where quiet is filled. On the other hand breathing used to be easy. Physically it still is but now the word has racial connotations with the deaths of Eric Garner and others where breath was taken. So now I think about that often, where breath is granted and taken away.
CC: I notice there are five sections in your book. Can you talk about the reasons you classified them this way?
CM: When I was putting together the book, I asked which poems talked to each other. If they were talking, what were they saying? (LOL). Some poems tackle knowledge, how we perceive race, music and dance, while others are an amalgamation of odes, memory, and imagination. I remember laying the poems on the floor, moving them back and forth, thinking of “blues” and what is embedded in that word. The five sections of the book—I Feel This Knowing Rising, A Body Full of Verbs, So Many Colors All Over, The Secret of Living in this Body, and Blue Hallelujahs represent poems talking to each other. The titles of the sections are actually lines from poems in that section.
CC: The poem, 2am from the A Body Full of Verbs starts with:
I make more animal
sounds than human
trying to find
those parts of my shadow
The name of the section, especially the body, does that expand to the shadows? Can you talk about these opening lines?
CM: Oddly enough 2am was a poem I was on the fence about because it’s honest and haunting at the same time. Visually it’s indented on the page because it brackets the body’s experience which is full of highs and lows. It could be coincidence but we tend to get bad news late at night. We reflect and react late at night while prepping for the next day. Either way the body is in constant motion. Sometimes you act like a grown-up, in charge and paying bills, and sometimes grief or anger curls the body and you realize how close to the ground your body can get. Regardless of language, we all have the ability to seek the ground. I think the body expands in and out of shadows; sometimes of our own making and at other times it’s an attempted erasure by others.
When I started my book and finished it, I felt different. I know some authors describe their books as a journey. Do you? How should readers feel after reading your chapbook?
CC: For me it’s impossible to separate poetry from my own experiences. Though I try my best to listen, study, and carve poems from the environment. At the end of the day, it is still coming from my inner space. For this chapbook, since it’s my first and earlier work, I do consider this one as a journey. However, I have also tried to write for a broader audience. I’m embarrassed to read back and sense the strong and plain emotions. But it’s honest, in the moment, and it’s a process of accepting and learning in a strange country. Some of the poems are even addressed to people I love or a group where I belong. I wish readers could see immigrants as a multifaceted group and treat them equally. Because we do share similar feelings, it’s just in different time zones.
What did you feel before and after you finished your book?
CM: When I was putting it together, I thought of it as a project because even though I wanted to publish it, I didn’t know if it would happen. Seeing it as a project let me keep the work slightly at a distance. But by the time it was done, it felt like a part of me. And I realized that the “I” contains multiple “I’s” some real, others imaginary. The same goes for the concept of mother and father. These poems are an amalgamation of mine and others. I love that realization. So after the book was done, it felt like a chapter had closed and I put a bow on it.
I always think of my poetry partners-in-crime aka people I bounce ideas or send poems to in the middle of the night. Do you have those partners? Who did you turn to in putting together One Day We Become Whites?
CC: Now I have you, Lauren Clark and peers from Poets House. I didn’t have many people to share my poems when I finished my manuscript. I wanted to publish it but I didn’t know how. I wrote some poems in my professor Rebecca Hardin-Thrift, Anselm Berrigan, and thesis mentor Barbara Henning’s class. After that, my mentor from NYFA, IAP program, B.C Edwards helped me arrange the order and come up with the title. My friend Wendy Xu and Belladonna* peers, especially Krystal Languell and Emily Skillings encouraged me to submit. My editors from No, Dear Magazine, also now my Poets House fellows Emily Brandt, Alex Cuff, along with Jen Hyde walked me through the editing and producing process.
How about you? Who are your partners-in-crime?
CM: I’m always sending poems to my Cave Canem roommates from the first retreat, so Lolita Stewart-White and Pamela Taylor. I was also in a poetry collective a couple of years ago with Safia Jama and my emails to her are always “Can I send you a weird poem?” Luckily she always responds with a yes. I’m also in a poetry group called Sweet Action and I bounce poems off them monthly. When I want feedback on entire projects I’ll send it to my former Brooklyn Poets classmates and I’m gonna add Adam Fitzgerald [a contributing editor at this website] to that list now because he’s amazing at editing. When I want to talk about the politics of poetry and performing, I turn to Amber Atiya, JP Howard, and Ed Toney. I now have the Poets House crew and I’ll be sending them poems from now on to the end of days probably.
CC: You said that you love music and the blues. If you could curate a playlist to go along with your book, what would it sound like?
CM: It would be a crazy mix. I would definitely start with Blackbird by India Jean-Jacques, then Bones Are Tired by She Keeps Bees, then Baby I Need Your Lovin by the Four Tops, any song by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Summertime by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Ain’t Got No (I Got Life) by Nina Simone, Groove Me by Kind Floyd, I’m a Woman by Koko Taylor, and I’d also sprinkle some Bjork in there somewhere along with the soundtrack to the movie The Last Dragon.
CC: Lastly, if you had to pick one poem from your book to send to younger you or a young girl, which one would it be? And why?
CM: There is a poem in the book called Letter to 1991 which is a letter to my younger self and I’m telling her that she worries too much. Despite any drama that surrounds you, take the time to dream big. You can only control your own fate and that’s ok. I’d tell her and any young girl to enjoy their age, be black girl joy, the world’s problems will always be there and you can confront them later on with a pen.