Art Talk with Marilyn Chin
Marilyn Chin. Photo by Don Romero
"I believe that “innovation” means to be courageous and to get out of your comfort zone and try new approaches." --- Marilyn Chin
Marilyn Chin's work unflinchingly explores what it is to be both Asian and American, where those worlds intersect and where they are seemingly incompatible. An omniferous artist, the Hong Kong-born, Oregon-raised Chin is a poet, translator, editor, teacher, activist, and, recently, even a novelist. In addition to the novel Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, Chin is the author of three collections of poetry, including Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, which was published by W.W. Norton in 2002. A recipient of two Creative Writing Literature Fellowships from the NEA, Chin has also received Fulbright and Stegner fellowships, four Pushcart Prizes, and awards from the Rockefeller Foundation and the United States Artists Foundation, among many other awards. We spoke with Chin about her version of the artist's life, how receiving her NEA fellowships affected her life, and her unusual assignment for young poets.
NEA: What’s your artist's life like these days?
MARILYN CHIN: I’m having a great time in mid-career! My work is getting historicized a bit; some scholars are writing on my poems. I’m getting a lot of invites from Asia. I am getting new love from Chinese fans---it’s time to take my role seriously as a Sage poet! Recently, I crossed genres and published a composite novel called Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. I’m experimenting a lot lately and am having a wonderful time.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?
CHIN: Very young I heard my grandmother chanting folk songs from the Confucian classics while being strapped to her back. As early as age four, I had memorized verses from the Cantonese opera. I loved hearing and memorizing poetry from the start.
NEA: What decision has most impacted your arts career?
CHIN: I declared myself an activist poet and never looked back. I think that this was an important promise to myself and to my readers. I grounded my work with a sense of purpose.
NEA: What artistic tool could you not live without?
CHIN: I cannot live without my books! Oh Goddess of Mercy! I can write with a pencil if you take away my laptop, but I cannot go a day without reading good literature.
NEA: You received NEA Literature Fellowships in 1985 and 1993. What did those fellowships make possible for you?
CHIN: They were immensely helpful! The award is about “buying time.” The first NEA fellowship bought me a year off to finish my first book, Dwarf Bamboo, which helped me get my first teaching job. The second NEA gave me a reprieve from the same teaching job to finish my second book. It’s all about buying uninterrupted time. I’m one of those poets who can’t seem to teach and write at the same time. The teaching is all-consuming. I am eternally grateful for those uninterrupted semesters to concentrate on my work.
NEA: In addition to writing your own work, you have also translated work by others and edited anthologies. How do those roles---poet, translator, editor---inform each other? How are they similar? How are they different?
CHIN: All those activities are a part of the life and responsibilities of being a poet. One must give back by introducing and blurbing younger poets, and by translating and bringing obscure and neglected poets into the western world. All those activities aren’t just notches on a resume. We must be good ambassadors for our art.
NEA: What does it mean to you to be an Asian-American writer? How does that part of your identity inform your work? How have your ideas about what it means to be an Asian-American artist changed from when you started your public career to now?
CHIN: I am proud to have been an active participant of the West Coast Asian-American movement. It was an important time. I felt like I was a sister in a very vibrant village. I never shied away from writing about Asian-American issues. I was also informed by “minority discourse.” I felt invigorated by the feminist and civil rights movements. Recently---I am developing more of a transnational, global Asian-American consciousness---and I want to make art that reaches out to the world.
NEA: You co-direct an MFA program. How does being a teacher inform your work? What's the most important thing that you want your students to take away from the program?
CHIN: I direct the program from time to time, but I am not crazy about admin work. I believe that I am a very good teacher. Old school---Iowa workshop, ala Donald Justice, I go back to the basic ideas of precision, line integrity, form, and variation, and all that craft stuff that somehow got watered down in recent years. I want the student to investigate every image, sound, connective, phoneme. I want to teach the student to be a very close reader of her genre.
NEA: One of the things we've started looking at in the last year is innovation. What's your definition of innovation? And who are some artists---in literature or other disciplines---who you think are doing innovative work and why?
CHIN: I believe that “innovation” means to be courageous and to get out of your comfort zone and try new approaches. The problem with the MFA programs is that they tend to breed more followers than innovators. Poets tend to attach themselves to a certain style or school of thought very early in their careers. I admire artists who are not afraid to change.
I am heartened to see artists crossing genres and shifting landscapes and modalities. For instance, Julian Schnabel’s move from painting to film brings a new painterly sensibility to film. I, for one, enjoyed my foray into writing fiction. I like seeing a fresh canvas as having open borders.
NEA: One of our main points at the NEA is that the artist is part of the community. To that end, what do you see as the role of the artist in the community? And what do you see as the responsibility of the community to the artist?
CHIN: One of my favorite exercises is to send the young poet into the community and write from the point of view of the “other.” If you are raised a Lutheran, go visit a black Baptist church. If you are raised a Catholic, go to a Cambodian Buddhist temple. I try to get the young writer out of her comfort zone. In June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, [she wrote that] she used to send her students to read poetry at political rallies and fundraisers. Maxine Hong Kingston workshopped with [military] vets. We underestimate how art and social activism can work together and transform lives.
Marilyn Chin was one of our judges for the 2012 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. Visit our Facebook page to find out which poem she would have recited as a competitor.