Ching-in Chen, a queer, Asian-American woman, recently published a novel-in-poems, a fictional narrative that loosely connects a series of poems. The central character is Xiaomei, a young women who becomes an organizer. While the central theme is self-discovery, we thought activists would find this work of interest. We have selected questions and author's responses to an interview. The book is available from Arktoi Books through the Chicago Distribution Center.
This book was conceived as a novel-in-poems. Could you talk about your choice of this form? And how did this affect the discovery of each individual poem as you wrote?
Each poem was a discovery and a challenge to do something I hadn't tried before. I don't think I realized it was a novel-in-poems until after I had written the first set of poems. Slowly, as each poem of that first thirty unfolded, I realized that the protagonist voice wasn't me (because previously, I had never written in persona before), it was Xiaomei. After I figured that out, it was a matter of getting to know her better and the world around her and the people she comes across.
Because this was a very different way of working for me than before (when I was just making poems from making sense of my daily life), I found that using poetic forms helped me contain my imagination to this one girl's story.
The first poem in The Heart's Traffic arises from the dialogue between a community's history and myth. How does the mythic collective imagination affect the individual characters in these poems? Does the collective imagination change shape throughout the book or remain in place?
The mythic collective imagination affects the individual characters in the book, even if they are not aware of it. I'm fascinated by this idea of how individuals belong or do not belong to communities-how they find a way that is both unique, but in what's going on in the universe around them. I believe that this is very much the mentality of belonging to an immigrant family and slowly having to learn to navigate in what may be a New World for this particular family but in a place that is already grounded in layers of history. Even though Xiaomei and her family are newly arrived the United States, they are already connected to this larger history of what's come before them, just as we all are. The experience life both on their terms as well as in response to how others interact with them. I wanted to capture how complex this is.
I hope that the collective imagination does change, both Xiaomei's participation in it and her community's sense of what is possible as well as for the reader. This is what the book is about for me, how we can figure out how to create our own myths that will help us and let go of those which do not, a sort of growing into our own history.
From your work as Director of the Asian American Resource Workshop for three years and to your organizational efforts with the national Asian Pacific American Spoken Word and Poetry Summit and your co-editorship of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities, you've diligently worked as a community organizer. Do you feel as if your political concerns have fed into your writing? Do you feel a social responsibility as a poet?
My commitment to my community work has always fed my writing, but I think that the way that it has done that has changed as I've matured as both a community organizer and a writer. I was led to writing through my community work and I owe a huge debt to the community that I come from, for nurturing my voice in many ways.
I do feel, however, that there is no one way to be a socially engaged poet, and I'm interested in new ways of being just that in the world. To me, that means giving back to my community in whatever ways I can. Right now, I'm just finishing up an online writing workshop for girls and women of color and non-gender-conforming people of color on gender militarism and war that is connected to an anthology I'm working on putting together with a collective. I donate my time to lead the writing workshop. I'm about to begin leading another workshop for Asian-American poets wit another friend where we are reading contemporary Asian-American poets and then writing together as a community. see both those efforts as giving back to the communities that I'm coming from and helping pass on what I've learned my peers and friends.