Girl Sage

SINCE RUSSIA INVADED Ukraine, my home country, in 2022, I have cycled through every emotion, from fury to guilt to an exhausted apathy, and back again. I am one of America’s many hyphens, slicing, halving, and merging my way into an uncertain future. Poets like Marilyn Chin offer readers like me an invaluable companionship, and even instruction, in poems that pop from the page with wit, whether they be a scream, a song, a riddle, or a monologue to a specific someone—with lines representative of differences between the poet and the other, yet with precise, modern diction that remains intent on alertness and on our seemingly inherent status as observers. 

“I believe that my work is daring, both technically and thematically. … My work is steeped with the themes and travails of exile, loss, and assimilation. What is the loss of country if it were not the loss of self?” says Marilyn Chin in Contemporary Women Poets. 

SAGE is an animated, intelligent, multicultural collection of poetry in which Chin braids feminist observations on major political events with lines on family, childhood, art, food, and so much more. There is no word, whether in English or not, that Chin is unafraid to use. No two disparate topics, to this poet, can be incongruous. Her pages dance with consonants and associative leaps, bubble with light and dark humor, and especially crackle with references to media that range from ancient philosophy to Zoom and TikTok. Chin rises to the task of the sage, gathering up material from any and every source in unique ways to push her poems, and American poetry, forward. 

            Marina Kraiskaya (Brown)

Marina Kraiskaya: You have mentioned that in your poetry, the self often represents something larger than the self, and that a relationship with the beloved, for example, becomes a sort of stand-in for the turmoil of the world–even if the conceit of the poem begins around the actual person. This “ballooning out” also seems related to the great many objects, images, voices, and characters incorporated in Sage. Can you talk about the process of conceiving an idea for a poem and watching it helix out into a larger final state? How often is that your original intent, or is it that you keep finding new threads to braid into the poem while writing?

Marilyn Chin: Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, Marina. I am an autobiographical writer, and unapologetically so. My poems always begin with the self. I hope that my poems can feel personal and political, yet universal. In SAGE—whether I’m writing a haiku, a quatrain, a ballad, or a long-segmented, diary-like, orchestrated piece—I treat each poem as its own breathing entity. Each poem demands its own process—its own integrity. When the poem “balloons” out into a larger, significant being, I am thrilled. If it decides to be a fun little jewel, that’s great too. The “original intent” might just be a passing thought, a dazzling image, or an urge to make a political statement—it takes a bit of courage and ambition and just downright tenacity to grind through weeks of drafts to develop a poem to its finest version. The “braiding,” additions, or subtractions come with both the conceptual and editing process. It’s all mystical and magical and hard work.

MK: Your poems often showcase the strength and varying perspectives of women. How do you envision your work contributing to representing women’s experiences and empowering their voices?

MC: I am a feminist writer! Whatever that means these days. I feel that it’s my duty to speak out against injustice. I’ve been tracking the condition of women all over the world. Recently, I have been keeping an eye on how the Taliban continues to degrade women’s rights. The female voices in SAGE speak to history and to the present. A Tang Dynasty poetess, iconic Suffragettes, Phillis Wheatley, Christine Blasey Ford, rebellious skating teenage girls… all have interesting stories to tell, and I want different personalities to be represented and remembered. And of course, the poet herself tells the story of her life during the pandemic. A woman’s life represents a slice of history.  

MK: During your winter 2023 reading event with the Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series, Professor Meagan Marshall asked about the role of the poet in the 21st century. You mentioned that “not all poets need to be political, and not all poets write well politically” but that writing “has to be genuine.” You also gave the advice of “being true to your voice, standards, and gift.” Are there any explicit ways, techniques, or processes by which you would advise poets to approach tackling massive and ongoing topics such as war without feeling like they are appropriating or somehow capitalizing on other people’s pain? (Something I struggle with.)

MC: This is the problem with the world these days. If you don’t write about the war, they will call you a traitor; if you write about the war, they will say that you are appropriating other people’s pain. We are lucky to live in a democracy and in an affluent nation. We have the privilege to write about controversial issues and not be punished by the government for our views. I have lived around the world, and I know about censorship. We need to be courageous and write what truly moves us, excites us, upsets us. Otherwise, why write? We have the pen for such a short time! And why let a few loud voices in academia set the agenda for our lifelong work? We must speak out against injustice whenever we can. And we must also write about molting butterflies, lovers, dragons, grandmothers… and celebrate our amazing moment on Earth.

MK: You often employ bilingual intertextuality and hybrid forms of east and west–like Chinese parallelisms and lyrics merged with sonnets or referencing Buddhist chants in a Whitmanian poem. From out of these inevitable fusions of forms, cultures, and identities, what do you think are some of the trends that will rise in modern American poetry? Is there anything happening in the poetry scene now that surprises you?

MC: There is so much in the web that I can’t really make astute commentary or judgements about “trends” in the “poetry scene.” I have always done my own thing, playing with multiple sides of my literary heritage. I just love reading and writing poetry; I love the process…. A poet’s quest is to find meaning in this complex world—poetry has given me everything. I feel very committed to my beloved genre.

At this stage of my life, I just want to write amazing poems! That sounds trite, but it is true. I don’t give a damn about what others believe. I know that a lot of young poets worry about catching “the trends” and about being accepted by the majority.

Perhaps there is not a “poetry scene” per se, but that there are multiple poetry scenes, everything from haiku parties to Syfy poetry workshops… there are Asian American groups, ecocritical writing groups, groups who write about animal rights, etc. Perhaps political poetry is making a comeback. I am happy to see a lot of poetry activity in cyberspace. We must be careful and not silo ourselves and segregate ourselves into color/caste/ethnic/racial/ageist categories. Remember, we are a pluralistic diverse society. What “surprises “me at this juncture is that nothing is terribly surprising.   

MK: What is your relationship with pop culture—for example, using Pikachu (“But Pikachu says FU”) or TikTok memes—in your work? Are you speaking to a certain generation, or perhaps just writing our current moment into your work? 

MC: Of course, I am influenced by pop culture; I live in the 21st century. I don’t do TikTok, except for learning dance moves and for discovering new ways to embellish my hair. There’s too much addictive trashy content flying around. Our attention spans are shortened and flattened. I like Pikachu because she/it/they are mischievous creatures. I was obsessed with playing Pokémon for a month or so… I mix things around—classical works with popular games—but I believe that a poet must write poems that have lasting value. Otherwise, why do it? You can make silly TikTok videos instead. But I learn a lot from young artists and rebellious funsters. They keep me wild and untethered!

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