Wild Girl Poet

A conversation with Marilyn Chin, winner of the 2020 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
Portrait of Marilyn Chin.

Back when we were still going to parties, I met Marilyn Chin at a party. It was 2013, at a gathering for Kundiman, the Asian American poetry collective. Jane Wong and I were munching on plates of cherry tomatoes when our hero, the legendary Marilyn Chin, came up and asked if we were “wild girl poets.” It was my first time meeting her, and I will never forget that seminal moment nor the look Jane and I gave each other before saying in earnest, in unison: “YES.” We didn’t know then what a wild girl poet was, but we’ve been living and defining it ever since.

Chin, who coined the phrase, embodies the wild girl poet. She taught at the inaugural Kundiman retreat in 2004, and for many Asian American poets, her fearlessness charted the course. Her first book, Dwarf Bamboo, was published in 1987, and she went on to release The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (1994); Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2001); Hard Love Province (2014); and a novel in stories, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (2009). In 2018, she published her collected works, A Portrait of the Self as Nation. She has received many fellowships, including a Stegner and a Fulbright, and in 2018 was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. This year, she is the recipient of the 2020 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

In each of her books, Chin remakes history, converses with ancient Chinese poets, and derails the Western heteropatriarchal gaze, offering a series of elegies, songs, curses, and tributes overflowing with her inimitable gusto: “They say we bitch revolutionaries never go out of fashion,” she writes in “For Mitsuye Yamada on Her 90th Birthday.” This being wild girl poetry, the meek and docile stereotypes of Asian women have been banished. A Marilyn Chin poem is never meek. A Marilyn Chin poem commands the voice of a ribald goddess. A Marilyn Chin poem is unmistakable, singular in its tenderness. As the poet declares in her “Brown Girl Manifesto,” “each utterance of the first-person ‘I’ as the speaking subject combats the history of oppression which extends to me.”

As I write this, yellow peril and anti-Asian hysteria have returned with a vengeance during the COVID-19 pandemic. An Asian American family was stabbed in Texas during the early days of the pandemic. A Chinese woman was attacked with acid in Brooklyn while taking out the trash. Chin’s poems do not shy away from the difficult traumatic histories that she has inherited as an Asian American immigrant—the whole genealogy of exclusion, xenophobia, discrimination, and war. Indeed, her poems lean into that elemental pain of rejection and survival with honesty, but they are also loving, full of resistance and joy.

The first time I read your poems, what struck me most was the ecstatic declaration of the self. The poem “How I Got That Name” feels like a love letter from the poet to herself, and as a young Chinese American, I didn’t know this was possible. This revelation—of how poems can manifest self-love—moved me profoundly. What is the role of self-love in your work?

I have often said that the self in my poems represents something larger than the self: family, tribe, nation(s), globe, multiple histories. Identity is a non-static thing, a dynamic adventure. Hopefully, we continue to blossom, grow, transform as persons and as writers. I published this poem in the Iowa Review in 1990, and poetry lovers still appreciate it 30 years later. “How I Got That Name” is about shouting out my existence, asserting/inserting myself into the poetry world. It is a speech act, a wily self-introduction. I wrote it for the page first in dramatic monologue form, mocking Shakespeare and Browning. Then I memorized it and turned it into an oral performance, an enactment on stage. It has served as a kind of Asian American anthem for 30 years: part autobiography, part protest, part intertextual literary fun. William Carlos Williams and Godzilla and my wretched immigrant family all under the same roof.

Yes, this poem is about self-love but not in the pop-psych way. It’s a very personal tale about an every-girl, a short, ordinary Chinese girl who was born in a cold water flat in Hong Kong and grew up in a hostile neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. I still have that little girl within me. I shout back at the world that is determined to erase me. Yes, we live in a “free” world and have the “right” to speak, so how shall we speak? With confidence and conviction, of course.

No matter who a person is: what race, class, gender or from which doggy dogma, everybody, at one time or another, has felt unloved. Sometimes people feel invisible; some of us at times even feel abandoned and disposable. I want to speak for and to this vulnerable audience. I carry the idealistic ethos of activist writers of past generations.

The activist spirit feels so true, especially in poems such as “A Portrait of the Self as Nation” and “For Mitsuye Yamada on Her 90th Birthday.” How can poets command the spirit of resistance?

The great poet/revolutionary June Jordan flew me up from San Diego several times to teach in her Poetry for the People class of 150 students at Berkeley. She was not interested in my ideas about revolution. Instead, she wanted me to teach Asian forms. I guided the class in a session in writing the jue-ju, the Chinese “cut verse” quatrain. She felt that what I offered her students was my ability to craft bicultural, multicultural forms. I was moved by her faith in my knowledge. I was very young at that time, fairly fresh out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She illuminated something very dear to me: that there are many ways for a poet to serve the public.

The great activist poets—Jordan, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks—loved poetry; they insisted that poetry is a powerful revolutionary force that can change lives! They didn’t “hate” poetry like some cynical contemporary poets do; they had a deep respect for the genre. There was a lot of cultural sharing in those days; I feel a bit nostalgic for that dynamic, generous era.

Both poems you mentioned began as occasional poems. “A Portrait of the Self as Nation” is a six-page poem I wrote protesting the first Gulf War. It’s an epic erotic love poem, an anti-war poem, and an immigrant anthem all wrapped in one. “For Mitsuye Yamada on her 90th Birthday” began as a celebration poem. I drove to her house in Irvine for her big party! Mitsu is a camp survivor. One can’t celebrate Mitsu’s life without including the history of internment camps and giving a snapshot of the California Asian American literary movement in her time. She was one of the founding mothers. Both poems are very personal, about love and friendship, but they open up to a larger theater of concern.

My early experience in Hong Kong forged my quest for social justice. I was born in a chaotic postwar city-state where the streets were filled with traumatized migrants. I witnessed how the patriarchal family structure oppressed and destroyed my mother. I saw how the very rich rode rickshaws and how the very poor were killed in shantytown fires. Very early, I realized that I will always be an outsider and will have to fight for my legitimacy in the world. I embody this historical trauma. Therefore, writing a poetry of resistance is very natural to me.

I don’t ask my students to write political poetry. I believe that we all must write what is natural and true to our personal situations. We must write about social injustice, and we must also write about our grandmother’s 90th birthday and cheesy love poems! The second wave feminists used to say the personal is political. Write about things that truly matter to you. The spirit of resistance, I believe, is innate in all of us.

What is your process of letting go in your poems, specifically in revision? “Rhapsody in Plain Yellow” is a beautiful elegy and love poem that used to be more than 20 pages, although the final version is much shorter. Did you find another home for those lines you cut?

For many years, in preparation, I pinned my favorite long poems on the wall and said, “How do I write a long poem that competes with past masterpieces?”—“The Waste Land,” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” “Song of Myself,” “The Iliad,” “The Anniad” (the Gwendolyn Brooks version!), “Sainte Lucie,” a patois-filled meditation by Derek Walcott, Margaret Walker’s public poem “For My People,” swaths of Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other (1989), and The Han Rhapsody, etc. I have amassed a list of best hits that I reread over and over to absorb the various schemata that the masters bring to the long poem.

First, I wrote two lines: “I love you, I love you, I love you, no matter / your race, your sex, your color.” They are the most compassionate two lines I have written, ever. But the rest was a 30-page, wonderfully inspired, hot mess.

I was teaching like a dog in those days and had time to write only in the summer. I went to the artist colony Yaddo with my first draft in hand. During dinner, David Rakowski, a fab composer, diagrammed the sonata form for me on the back of a napkin. He also gave me a pile of mix tapes to help my muse: classical, jazz, rock, R&B, strange atonal stuff.

I spent nights listening to mix tapes, hoping to spark the muse. I delighted in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (that’s how I was able to riff on the title). Beethoven’s Ninth—don’t laugh—I listened to it over and over again to absorb how the mad maestro paces the whole damn thing, where he swells ups, where he quiets down, allegro here, contemplative there, he goes off on a tangent but comes back to the theme, and, of course, he brings in the big choir in the end.

So I learned to associate the writing of a long poem with that of a symphony. And I carried that notion with me for every long poem that I have written since. I give the poem time, breadth, and variation; I structure it but let it digress with embellishments and crescendos galore. The last week of my residency, I sat in my studio and spread the pages on the floor and cut them up with cuticle scissors. I love the collage method. Old-school cut and paste. It’s primal, childlike play. But revisions are hard. One has to be mercenary and sacrifice the great cherished moments, as well as the mediocre stuff, to force the piece to work. It would take four years to finish “Rhapsody.” As for the lines I cut, they go to the purgatory of lost lines and can be repurposed later for another poem—or not.

I never gauge the success of a poem by its length or ambition. Each child/poem has its own integrity and brilliance. The process for writing a killer quatrain is different from the process of writing a six-page poem with big unwieldy ideas. Poetry is the quest for excellence. I know this sounds precious and trite, but it’s true. All a poet can hope for is that her work is memorable and that some pieces may survive the test of time.

One element of your work that I love is your referencing folklore and fairy tales. How have folklore, Chinese religion, myth, and fairy tales informed your work, especially in Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, and in newer poems such as “Chaos Had No Eyes” and “Dao”? What is your process of riffing on and reinventing these traditions?

My undergraduate degree was in classical Chinese literature. I had early pretensions of getting a PhD in comp lit. My old professors forced me to memorize Chinese poems and look up archaic references in dusty dictionaries. Some of the classes in my schedule were called Chinese dialectology, Chinese historiography and bibliography. Yikes! At the time, I resented spending hours translating obscure works while others were out drinking shots of tequila. I am a lit nerd—I love all kinds of literature—but I confess, I love the ancients more than I love the contemporary.

The Confucian works often offer dry, didactic lessons, but some of the Daoist, Buddhist, and folk tales are brilliant, cray-cray, absurd wherein we get the unity of the opposites. I remember guffawing while translating a tale about the great philosopher Zhuangzi pounding on some old pots, celebrating his wife’s death, and another about a beautiful fox demon who devoured a scholar’s male "essence." These are magical, edgy stories. And through that focused classical training, I absorbed the ancient philosophy of my ancestors. They helped me craft my Chinese American voice that often teeters between reverence and anarchy. (I dare not womansplain further, lest I upset the Great Goddess.) The ancient writers influence me in a mysterious way. I embody their voices. I can’t extract them from my soul. They are a part of my imaginative universe. I’m glad you enjoyed Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s a bad girl, neoclassical, underground romp. It’s very subversive. In the latest work, I’m trying to get back to “beginner mind, best mind.” Back to childlike play. I’m excited about the next misadventure.

Speaking of bad girls: they are a part of your unapologetic poetic DNA, as shown by your bad-girl haikus, your “Brown Girl Manifesto,” and your coinage of the phrase wild girl poet. How do you define bad girl and wild girl poet, and how has this identity carried you through the years? What kinds of misadventures do bad girl poets embark on?

Guai (乖) is a character that means obedience—a guai nu is an obedient Chinese girl: Buddhistic, perfect, selfless, quiet, hardworking. She never complains. She would let her brother eat the food first, then take the scraps. She practices self-denial and self-effacement. My mother was the quintessential guai nu; she was a sweet, compassionate figure, and I spend my life seeking justice for her sad life.

There is a supreme contradiction between the quiet, studious, nerdy girl who is trying to read poetry in several languages and the one who is dancing naked, salaciously, irreverently, dangerously, on the page. I didn’t choose the profession of poetry to be safe. I purposely chose to be a literary artist to embarrass my ancestors, to defy my parents, to shout back at the world.

Bad girl poet doesn’t mean I’m pole dancing and having sex parties. It’s about conjuring the trickster muse. The subversive goddess. The one who is not guai. The one who dares to write “Ancient Pond, the frog jumps in and in and in, the deep slap of water” knowing that the reference feminizes, sexualizes, and transgresses the greatest Zen haiku ever written. I have to slay Basho in a haiku because he was the best. I was angry that the patriarchy suppressed women’s voices. But mostly, I was angry at my father and grandfathers for hurting my “good” mother. Ultimately, it’s a personal fight. The bad girl is fighting for the good girl.

You might say that bad girl poet does not mean pole dancing, but the third time I ever met you was on a party bus, when you were faculty at Kundiman in 2014. I could swear we were pole dancing to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Magic and play sing throughout your work, but they also accompany a sort of mordant humor. You’re one of the few poets whose humor works. What roles do humor and laughter play in your poetry-making? Do you set out to write something funny, or do the poems come out that way?

I’m inspired by stand-up comedy. I have all of Margaret Cho’s DVDs. The greatest hits of Dave Chappelle. The kings and queens of comedy. They embody the great mixture of combustible pain and historical anger. I like the zany stuff too: Monty Python’s Christ on the cross singing “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life.” Yikes! Sacrilegious! Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Silly, brilliant! They make us cringe as they reveal the radical truth of our ridiculous lives. The best comics are transgressive. They test the edges of bad taste.

Of course, I have absorbed tons of funny poetry. Shakespeare was silver-tongued, raunchy, and funny. Chaucer made fun of nuns and priests. I have memorized lots of Twain’s silly puns: “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Beautiful sick satire in Sylvia Plath’s “Cut.” She forces readers to take an aggressive, surreal, roller coaster ride down her bleeding finger! “My thumb, instead of an onion” is masochistic satire. Emily Dickinson: “I’m Nobody […] / Are you – nobody – too?” I read as stiff-upper-lip, passive-aggressive sarcasm. I love the extreme social satire in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Ginsberg’s outrageous homoerotic riffs: “Waving genitals and manuscripts,” “Who killed the porkchops?” His pornographic pieces such as “Please Master” are way ahead of their time.

Just flipping through my own poems: “Pound, pound my father’s Ezra” is one of my punniest lines. I am proud to be the bastard child of the Imagist movement. “Cuttlefish in my palm stiffens with rigor mortis, boy toys can’t love” is mordantly funny, as is any time one connects sex, death, and boy toys. Actually, almost all of the pieces in “Twenty Five Haiku” use raunchy imagery. You can tell that the poet is having fun with wild imagery and wordplay. I let the satirical images speak for themselves. The secret to creating good comic timing on the page is that the poet must trick the reader to do a double-take, to linger on the weird image or smart anecdote or pun—a little longer—and get the full punch of the joke. Then, of course, I use humor to layer on my social and political critique with gusto. The medicine goes down easier with a dose of laughing gas.

Writing poetry is a serious, lonely enterprise. Hours reading and writing in a dark room only to throw the thing out by the end of the day. Once in a while, I need to reach for the absurd and amuse myself and cackle loudly in the light.

These days, we cannot travel very far, and our adventures are mostly confined to the internet and our imaginations. What do you have to say about the COVID-19 pandemic? [Update: It is now August 2020. In recent months, the United States has experienced a wave of protests against anti-Black police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. What are some ways poets can support Black Lives Matter and other movements for Black liberation? Who are the Black writers who have moved and influenced you?]

At this writing, we have lost more than 160,000 beloved friends and family members to COVID-19. Millions have lost their jobs, and we are threatened by a long economic depression. Streets are still filled with young protesters marching against systemic racism, still mourning the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black victims of the state. The nation is gripped by anger, anxiety, grief, frustration, mistrust, isolation, and despair. With the election only a few months away, Goddess Almighty, I hope we don’t vote in the same divisive, racist, incompetent buffoon that we did last time.

I hope each of us—in a personal and deliberate way—will support Black Lives Matter. Through our daily actions and interactions, we can make a difference in the world.

For my part, this month I shall write a check to a BLM organization. We must not only march with BLM, we must donate a share of our lunch money to them, no matter how large or small, so that they can continue their vital work.

This week, I am going to immerse myself in Black history. I’m going to reread the giants of Black literature. Come with me. Go back to the classics: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Octavia Butler are indispensable to the American canon, but have you read them lately? Don’t let them fade. I have June Jordan’s poems and essays on my night table. I’ll reread Gwen Brooks’s self-made anthology Blacks (1973), Robert Hayden’s best hits, The Essential Etheridge Knight (he brought me back to the haiku), and Audre Lorde’s classic Sister Outsider (1984), so clear and memorable. I can’t wait to revisit Jean Toomer’s gorgeous Cane (1923). This month, I’m honoring the great Black writers who have passed on. Next month, I’ll read the living. I am grateful to the Black writers who have guided me through many decades. Their struggle helped bring forth this Chinese-American poet.

I feel extremely grateful for this blessed life of poetry.

Originally Published: June 16th, 2020

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Oculus (Graywolf Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. Her first book, Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), was the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award. She was born in Wuhan, China and raised in the Bay Area,...