An Interview with Poet & Activist, Ching-In Chen

Ching-In Chen came across the Revolving Door Reading Series by what I like to attribute to divine, cosmic logic. Meeting her and then immediately running to read her poems, I was ecstatic and in awe of her awesomeness. Her ability to take a moment, cover it in the shrouds of innocence and simplicity, only to find that I have entered something that is not at all quiet or complacent, but that has pulled me to make me listen to the complexities, conflicts, and graciousness of its stories. I am speaking of poems found in her book “The Hearts Traffic.”

Ching-In will be featuring for us on Wednesday, Jan. 26th at 7:00PM at the South Halsted Gallery, 1932 S. Halsted, Chicago. As a way to introduce her to all of you, and have you love her as much as we do, we asked her a few questions that she was willing to answer about her work and activism.

Q. How did you first get interested in writing? What drew you in to the poetry scene?

A. One of the ways I entertained myself when I was growing up was by telling myself stories. I think that was a natural entry way to wanting to write and read stories as I grew older. Community organizing drew me to poetry. I witnessed all these incredible poets who were involved in the community able to conjure up whole worlds with a few words and move people to take action to change what they saw around them. It felt like magic to me.

Q. What is your earliest memory of writing?

A. I remember being very young and sitting in the kitchen with a notebook, very determined, and thinking to myself — this is my job, this is what I want, to be a writer, and I’m going to write.

Q.Who are some of your influences? What or who, outside of poetry, if anything, can find its way into your work, as well?

A. Cathy Park Hong for writing Dance Dance Revolution. I remember walking by and hearing her read (or speak in the dialect made up by 300 tongues) and stopping because I’d never heard anything like it. I love that book because it imagines a new language and possibility — and even history — of the future. In some ways, I would say I am drawn to the work of Larissa Lai, Terrance Hayes, Orlando White, Sharon Bridgforth, Myung Mi Kim, and Bhanu Kapil all for this reason. I very recently moved from the southern California desert and I made a relationship with that landscape through the work of these assemblage artists I was introduced to almost by chance. Artists like Noah Purifoy and Bettye Saar. I’m very drawn to collage so I tend to collect scraps from life and incorporate them into my poetry.

Q.  What has it been like being a part of Midwest Poetry Scene?

A. I haven’t been here for a very long time, but there’s a comraderie and support that I’ve found very welcoming. I also have felt space for multiple kinds of voices and aesthetics, at least in the people I’ve been lucky to meet and develop a relationship with, and I’ve felt grateful for that.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about The Heart’s Traffic?

A. The book tells a story about a young girl growing herself up through relationships — with the family and community she’s left behind and the ones she enters, with those who have left her and those who love her, and with herself.

Q. In an interview you mentioned that before The Heart’s Traffic you didn’t typically write in persona. How would you describe the difference between your writing process before delving into The Heart’s Traffic, and persona, and your writing process prior to the writing the book?

A.Yes — writing the book was an experiment! I wrote it by taking risks and trying out poetic forms and voices that I hadn’t before. I think that I was really changing through writing The Heart’s Traffic from a poet who was primarily a spoken word performer to a poet who was learning how to incorporate performance on the page through experimentation with white space and form, figuring out different tongues that could carry the story.

Q. What was your journey like toward writing The Heart’s Traffic and the story of Xiaomei? How do personal experiences and/or people, if any, play a role in the book and its story?

A. I almost gave up writing in the years immediately before writing The Heart’s Traffic. I remember I was working a grueling community organizing job, feeling torn between writing and doing community work and not feeling I could balance both. At the time, the poet Suheir Hammad was my teacher in a writing workshop for writers of color called Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA). That day, I remember she told the other writers in the workshop not to workshop my work in the typical way where they would focus specifically on technical craft issues in the work. I think she knew that wasn’t what I needed. She asked the group to each tell me what gift they got out of my work that was special to my work. I remember that they all said different things, but each one mentioned love. And I think that was really the journey of writing this story. It’s a story about self-love and developing a sense of who you are and your place in the world. So I think that Xiaomei, of course, is both a persona, but also born out of my own personal experience.

Q. What would you like readers to walk away with from reading The Heart’s Traffic or your poetry in general?

A. I hope that I can help my readers see the world in a way that they might not have thought about, in a way that might be challenging, surprising and fresh. At least, that’s what I’ve gotten out of writing it and so I hope that I can transmit some of that wonder to my readers. And I hope they enjoy the experience of reading or experiencing it!

Q. Do you see yourself continuing the use of persona in your work?

A. I’m working on several projects that involve the use of persona. I’m writing some poems from the point of view of a one-armed Chinese boy who is having a relationship with one of the founders of Bodie, California in the 1880s for a poetic project on the history of Bodie organized by the stellar poet Nicelle Hughes. But my second manuscript, We Belong to the Shiny City, also involves personas including a love/hate battle between the Fragment Queen and the Sentence Lover and some other characters I had a lot of fun writing.

Q. What are you working on currently?

A. I’m always working on multiple projects, but the project that I came to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee PhD program to work on is a retelling of the global history of coolies, mostly Asian indentured laborers sent around the world after the slave trade ended. It’s both a speculative and historic project which involves a place called Coolie World, which is a combination cruise ship and historical amusement park/attraction.

Q. As a community organizer, what are some of the organizations and causes have you work with and for?

A. I’ve been most recently involved in the Save Our Chinatown Committee in Riverside, California which was a grassroots organization committed to preserving the archaeological history of the Riverside Chinese. Through that organization, I had the good fortune to work with some young Asian American student leaders. In the past, I’ve also been involved in an anti-eviction campaign in Oakland Chinatown, anti-war organizing and organizing community-based arts events.

Q. How do your community activities find their way into your writing?

A. My writing is fed and grown by the communities I belong to and am involved in (including Kundiman, VONA, and Macondo). I hope to contribute as much to those communities as I’ve gained. Also, I’ve made a conscious effort to work on community projects that utilize my writing and editing skills. For instance, I’m part of the Revolution Starts At Home Collective, which has been involved in editing an anthology around partner abuse in activist communities which is coming out with South End Press in March 2011. This came out of a zine that we had put together as a resource for those who were dealing with these issues.

Q.If you could create the soundtrack of your choice to your work and The Heart’s Traffic, what songs or artists would be included?

A. What a great question that I haven’t yet been asked! :-) Here’s my proposed soundtrack — Thao Nguyen, Blue Scholars, Lhasa de Sela, Mystic, Jean Grae, Vienna Teng, From Monument to Masses, Diskarte Namin, Prince, Asian Dub Foundation, Me’shell Ndegeocello.

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