Carlina Duan and Jasmine An
Carlina Duan and Jasmine An Interview Each OtherCarlina and Jasmine have orbited the same writing circles since high school. In this interview, they celebrate each others’ recently released chapbooks with questions about craft, ghosts, joy, and growing up Chinese-American.
Here I Go, Torching, by Carlina Duan (Amazon, $7)
Naming the No-Name Woman, by Jasmin An (Two Sylvias Press, $14)
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GIRLHOOD & GHOSTS
Carlina: You begin your chapbook, Naming the No-Name Woman, with a quote, “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”
I am so curious about this idea of inherited haunts, perhaps because I think of poetry, to some degree, as inheriting an entire collection of new (and sometimes imagined) haunts — what lingers, what ghosts in the world yet becomes preserved through paper.
I wonder if you could speak a little bit about your relationship to writing through the lens of preservation, or ghost/loss. Do you view writing as an act of preservation in this way, or not? Why and what do you find yourself drawn towards writing about?
Jasmine: I’m hooked on the idea of haunting, and of haunting not necessarily being a negative thing, but rather as a potential space for honoring and celebration. I’m also a bit of a literary theory geek. That particular epigraph is from a pair of scholars, Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, who wrote about the haunting powers of grief and loss through a psychoanalytic framework. Another pair of scholars, David Eng and Shinhee Han, also took up psychoanalytic concepts in very similar ways to describe the experience and formation of race in the United States, especially for Asian immigrants and citizens. One of the ideas Eng and Han bring to the table that really inspired my writing process for this [chapbook] was the fact that holding onto a loved and lost object/person/culture/identity could be a powerful tool of reclamation and empowerment. What appears in these poems as “haunting,” they describe as a “psychic process in which the loved object [e.g. Anna May Wong] is so overwhelmingly important to… the ego that the ego is willing to preserve it even at the cost of its own self” (Eng & Han, “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia”). These poems are most definitely haunted by Anna May Wong and also a small way to acknowledge/preserve her legacy.
My last year of undergrad, after I’d been wrestling with these academic concepts for a while when I had the thought: wait, does this happen to me? What circles in my brain and refuses to vanish? Could my writing possibly be part of this cycle of preservation, inheritance, honoring?
I think writing came to mind fairly quickly for me as one of the sites where ghostly relationships become real because poetry/writing is such a generative process. I imagine these types of hauntings crave that type of productive space where they can crystalize and come closer to the world. It was both stunning and gratifying to place myself inside a small corner of this huge and historical narrative that told itself through my poems as much as I used it as a vehicle for my own voice.
I wanted to dig a little into what it meant for me to inhabit Chinese, American, and Woman. Anna May Wong became the entry point to haunting because she herself is haunted by a history of growing up a Chinese-American woman in the early 1900s, which is haunted by colonialism and patriarchy and the exotification/commodification of the East by the West. She carved a place for herself in the unforgiving world of Hollywood, sometimes by playing and reinforcing stereotypical roles, but also by existing and persevering. I say I am “haunted” by her legacy because she was so important in shaping the expectations for what a “Chinese-American” woman “should” be; I fit very few of those expectations, yet a few others I fit perfectly. Her haunting is both problematic in that it creates unrealistic and monolithic expectations for Chinese-American womanhood, and also celebratory in that acknowledging her continued influence on my life acknowledges her accomplishments and existence.
Carlina: YES! And I think celebration and resistance — especially resistance of these monolithic, constricting expectations of Chinese American women — bind themselves to your writing, and challenge readers to experiment and resist their own preconceptions of language, hauntings, American-ness, poetic form. I want to focus for a minute on that resistance, and the ways it rides a power-line of consciousness and strength. What are your general strategies for resistance? And of power? How does resistance influence your writing, in any way?
Jasmine: I’m a slow thinker and a slow actor. Writing helps me think a thing through. Often, I won’t really get to the bottom of my thoughts until I write about them. It doesn’t have to be a poem, even lists and stream of consciousness ramblings make me move my hands and take responsibility for what comes out of them. I think across all areas of my life, I try to resist taking things too simplistically. There is no monolithic archetype of “woman,” or “Chinese-American,” or “queer.” These poems, I hope, challenge the temptation to box people up into presumptions of their identity based on two or three descriptors. They are not the defining experience of Chinese-American womanhood; they are one specific, weird, horny, ghostly rendering of queer Chinese-Americanness. I think the more different narratives we have the better because the multitude debunks the traditional canon’s attempt to exotify and caricature, i.e. simplify, marginalized narratives.
Jasmine: In a similar vein, your chapbook Here I Go, Torching, which was the 2015 winner of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies Edna Meudt Award, has this central idea of “American girlhood” — what that is, and who can access it. To me, it is a beautiful example of refusing simplicity and shattering assumptions. What brought you to “American girlhood” and what do you think you learned about it through writing this collection?
Carlina: In the past few years, I’ve become more observant of ways in which strangers name or tag my body with language: “Asian chick,” “Chinese girl,” “Chink,” “lady.” These names have haunted me, and pressed me to think critically about why, at times, the initial tendency is to comment on my black hair or to congratulate me on my English. In writing the poems for the chapbook, I started questioning what it means for a body to be “tagged” with language, and, essentially, seen. When I dared to call myself “American” in spaces that were resistant to my American-ness, I started wondering what and how I could rename myself.
To me, “American girlhood” has never been this cookie cutter, concrete block. She shapeshifts. She is brazen; she is precise; she is fluid. I realized that by creating poems that spoke definitively of MY American girlhood as a Chinese American girl growing up in the Midwest, I was smashing the hell out of a pre-existing narrative, and reshaping it into something with thicker fists, something raised by thicker (plural) tongues.
In college I took a course on the History of the English Language with Anne Curzan, and became transfixed by the linguistic concept of code-switching — the unconscious shift from one language into another among bilingual speakers. What struck me very forcefully were the ways that code-switching had manifested itself in my daily existence. As children of Chinese immigrants, my sister and I grew up among Mandarin Chinese and English, constantly moving between two registers of language. As a result, I was left to marvel (and, at times, resent) that stickiness of belonging to dual languages, cultures, and histories. These poems are my attempt to re-examine that unique “in-between” space. To draw into focus the whole slew of privileges, ghosts, and joys that come with deeming yourself “American,” deeming yourself “girl.” What would it mean for me to declare myself citizen of the world I grew up in — a world where I constantly code-switched through homes and lingual spaces deemed “the other”? I wanted to create poems that celebrated and critiqued all the funky, funny shit that accompanies “girlhood” and the conscious process of “becoming” girl, and on top of this, “becoming” American.
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MAMMALS & MYTH
Jasmine: You have a biting poem in your chapbook, “What You Lookin’ At, Chink,” that tackles the word “Chink” with an almost biology textbook-esque description of “the Chink” as a mammal and juxtaposes it with human racism and identity. In other works of yours as well, I’ve noticed mammals and their body parts, snouts and paws, as recurring images. Why do you turn to the animal? What do you think that juxtaposition of human - mammal allows you to get at, and how?
Carlina: In the poem you described, “the Chink,” as named by a passerby through the open window of a car, turns into a small mammal with fur and claws. It’s this process of humiliation — humiliation through racism — that turns her from a smooth-skinned human into a savage animal with a jawline full of sharp teeth; and, accordingly, shifts the abstract process of humiliation into that of a living creature — something with its own limbs, its own lungs, its own laws. Consider all the thousand ways in which humiliation takes on a savage life of its own. I gravitate towards animals in my poems when I find emotion ruling my body, and transforming me into something that feels distinctly uncomfortable or foreign.
I think animals act as poetic vehicles that spin the poems into a magical realist world. The animal is a way for me to subvert the ways others “see” my body — then use that resistance to honor my own muscle and wingspan. My next book project, I Wore My Blackest Hair (forthcoming from Little A in November 2017) revolves partly around this idea of paralleling human emotion with the animalistic. I’m always fascinated by moments of smallness, where humans are made to feel pitiful, but out of some strange, impossible inclination, use this reduction to pounce back. By evolving into the animal, “the Chink” essentially takes ownership of her own animalistic state in order to bite, to strike.
I also feel as if I leave my own body when I enter the space of a poem, and am able to view it from a more scientific or perhaps animalistic angle. My body — other bodies, too — become empowered within the poem to move and act in ways that are only made possible through language; and that, in turn, constructs poem’s textual body as a type of new creature, something alive, with its own skeletal composition and fast breaths.
Carlina: Speaking of the animalistic, science and nature are strong undercurrents in your poems, as well. I think of “Cross Pollination” and “Lotus Blossom Rejects,” to name a few. These poems are so sexual and stunning in their ability to draw/observe on the richness of … sprouting life. I almost feel like this embodiment of science is one way to mythologize — and make more alive, more visceral — the experience of the human body. How do you define “myth,” or, what does “mythology” mean to you? Can you talk about what role(s) myth and science play in this collection?
Jasmine: To me, science and myth are more similar than they are different. Science is so imprecise and mercurial, new findings replace old findings constantly, and myths grow the same way through telling and retelling over thousands of years.
Science is kind of wonderful to me, the knowledge and possibilities are so huge when people get curious. At the same time, I also feel that science is often portrayed as inhuman, both as in clinical, cold and heartless, and also as related to the non-human parts of the world: animals, algae, geography. Unfortunately, this makes science a good tool for legitimizing the oppression of folks society would like to frame as less than human: women, POC, queer folks, our bodies. I’m interested in the ways we can bring science, humanity and awe back into orbit with one another.
Sex/sexuality is perhaps what I turned to in this chapbook to link the worlds of science and myth. Sex can be a profoundly clinical and scientific act and also so human and messy, easily mythologized and demonized. Also, let’s be honest, I’m a horny 23 year old who’s also all too aware of the hypersexualization of Asian-American women - “yellow fever” anyone? - and I wanted a way to roll with all the conflicting fears, fantasies and desires competing for space in my head. Anna May Wong’s sexuality haunted her, as both her biggest selling point and constant site of othering. Her acting in scenes where she is obviously being exotified remains stunning, no lowered standards. Writing sensual poems is perhaps my way of taking a sort of ownership over my own sexuality and representation, and I hope that she would approve.
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CRAFT & CREATION
Jasmine: Your writing is heavy with wonderful and specific images: your sister’s thumb, sharpened pencils, pomegranates. At the same time, your poems also have a very lyrical quality to them; the way you utilize the intonation and music of words is precise and beautiful. In your writing process, what quality most often births a poem for you?
Carlina: Ultimately, I think it’s this idea of just paying attention and asking: what strikes my eye? My ear? My biggest heart? - that spirals the poem out of me. I’m not necessarily thinking of image or sound as catalyst; rather, what usually cracks open the poem for me is some conglomerate of questions that disguise themselves as image or noise or sky. Recently, I wrote a poem called “In Light of Having Square Teeth,” and the premise was … not having square teeth, but it in actuality was about a love I’ve had for years and waking up, one day, to realize the person I love does not love me back. I think most of my poems work like that. They take some pent-up image or sound in my brain and rework that as a shard of the puzzle … figuring out these greater truths I sometimes shy away from in my day-to-day life.
Carlina: So much of this work is lush in its playful experimentation with form. Can you talk about some of the form poems? What did you consider when creating this book, in relation to craft and genre?
Jasmine: A lot of this book is made up of prose poems. I think that stemmed from my frustration with enjambment, which stemmed from my frustration with how fragmentation sometimes allows me to make a poem “look like a poem” rather than saying what needs to be said. I think the reason many of these poems appear as prose blocks is that I felt the only way I could force the necessary story out of myself was in a continuous flow, without distractions.
Along with the prose poems, this chap also has a couple of triolets, which are super strict form poems with a lot of repetition and limited word choices. It’s a weird juxtaposition, but I think the impulse behind the decision to write in a strict form is the same: avoid rambling, force myself to confront the narrative and the “why” that exact piece needed to be written. If there is a common thread or themes to these poems, it is the confrontation of all the aspects of my life that made me uncomfortable and that I didn’t want to think about, but that were slowly gnawing away at me because I was needed to face them and wasn’t.
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Jasmine: Languages have so many rules, patterns and formulas; they become almost mathematical at times. Has teaching English in Malaysia stirred up any new thoughts or changed any of the ways you use language? Do you think being a teacher of language changes the way you approach your own use of language, especially in poems/creative writing?
Carlina: Absolutely. Distilling English down to grammar rules or lists of animal vocabulary reminds me that being an experimenter (re: poet) of language also means acknowledging the privilege & wild work of being able to view language as “play.” Many of my students, who live in rural Malaysia, apologize to me on a daily basis that their English is “broken.” I find myself ruminating on the ways in which language is your power; it is your work; it is your life’s work, in many ways. This year, I am very conscious that language, poetry, acquisition isn’t simply “play,” but it is, in part, shame; it is, in part, survival.
On the other hand, looking at English and being able to break down sentences to their basic points — object, subject, pronoun — has been both humbling and challenging for my own writing. I think it’s caused basic fact/honesty to leak out of my poetry in a way that, previously, was always clouded up in images, or heavy metaphors. I find myself much more willing to “go there” in my work; much more willing to state tree as tree; rain as rain; truth as truth.
Carlina: You just moved to Thailand and are watching the world through new corners and spaces. What do you find yourself resisting in your world these days?
Jasmine: Being in Thailand is very interesting to me because my language skills are so limited. It’s hard to say what I mean and easy to fall back on simplistic frameworks because that’s the extent of my Thai vocabulary. Learning vocab also happens in a very normative way most of the time, like learning the words for different family members, mom, dad, kids, etc. put me in a shockingly heteronormative and nuclear family centric mindset. I need to keep reminding myself that even the vocabulary of a five year old (which is where I’m currently at) can be stretched to get at more complicated ideas if I’m a little creative. Recently, I wore my “I am not a token” t-shirt (heyy, No Tokens Journal!), which led to explaining the concept of being a “token” to a 14 year old in a weird mix of examples and Tinglish. I don’t know which of us were more excited when we succeeded in understanding one another. It was a good reminder to me that just because I’m living and communicating in a different language doesn’t mean I have an excuse to be a non-critical thinker.
Carlina: I want to take a moment for a question regarding peace and sustainable joy. Something I admire about these poems is their subtle, deeply revolutionary ways of celebrating the self, muscle — “FACT SHEET: Know your Chinese Water Dragon,” for example, totally veers and punches, yet also grows from a very strong layer of self-conquer and self-celebration. So how do you celebrate? Celebrate yourself?
Jasmine: I think this is a question that I should ask myself every day. In many ways, writing this collection was one of the most celebratory things I can remember doing. Even on the days that it seemed like every paragraph I wrote was a snarling knot of contradictions, I remember feeling like wow, this is important, this makes me feel like him doing something good for myself. I hope I can have more writing experiences like this.
On a more giddy note: sushi, wearing a black button down and my brother’s lavender tie, my bike and the trails by the Huron river, climbing trees and/or mountains, walking on walls and rails and feeling like I deserve all the airspace I can reach.
Carlina: Giddy notes are sometimes the most important. I’m my at my shiniest when I’ve just replaced the batteries in the air conditioner remote and there are precious piles of mangoes overlooking my desk. I love eating grainy breads with my sister, surfing through grass with my parents, admiring fresh produce, and sitting before shelves and shelves of library books.
Plus, confetti goes up in my heart whenever I get to exchange brain-waves with friends who are simultaneous writers, readers, editors, & supreme badasses. Thank you, Jas.