AN INTERVIEW WITH JODY CHAN
How did you first encounter poetry? What inspired you to start writing?
As a kid, I was always writing: poems, journal entries, Pokémon fanfic. I recently remembered that I used to tell stories in my head constantly, like an internal narration of my own life and imagination. But I forgot about this part of myself until five years ago, when, in the midst of a long depressive episode, I came across Andrea Gibson’s The Madness Vase. For me, that opened up a whole world of queer and trans poets, BIPOC poets, sick and disabled poets, and a re-discovery of how important writing is for me as a practice of care and reflection.
I love that you weave Chinese characters and phonetic translations of spoken Cantonese into your poems. You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that you don’t know how to read or write Chinese well and feel a certain shame about that, something common among children of immigrants. How does including Chinese/Cantonese in your poetry help you combat that shame?
I don’t think I feel shame about this anymore. Now, the feeling is longing. My vocabulary in Cantonese is very limited. I just wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation in Cantonese about most of the things I care about and have built my life around. I don’t have the words to organize in Cantonese, conduct my therapy practice in Cantonese, or even be a supportive friend in Cantonese. What is available to me is what I learned from my family about living together: I can throw some insults around, and I can perform daily acts of care, like checking in on people when they’re sick, or asking if they’ve eaten yet. Weaving Chinese characters and translations into my poetry is my attempt to integrate two halves of my life—childhood and present, Cantonese and English, family of origin and everyone else—to remember that both languages have shaped my experience of the world, even if there are parts of myself I can only express in each one.
You’ve said that one of the main engines of your work is obsession. As such, the “mother” is a major obsession in your poetry—whether that be one’s biological mother, their motherland, or their mother tongue. Can you speak more to this recurring theme?
Yes, one of the main engines of my work, and of my life! I don’t really know how to work on projects, learn new skills, etc. except in this way. As for mothers, mine died a week after I was born. I never knew her, and there is an almost complete lack of language in my family around this loss. How do you grieve potential? It’s easy to idealize love that could have been but never was. I don’t imagine I’ll ever stray far from this obsession, though of course my work will change, and has changed, to address new questions; I don’t know enough about what it would have been like to have her to let her go. In my work, the mother, in all the ways you’ve named, comes to represent care, ancestorship, and connection to land and home—rupture and repair in regards to all of these things is terrain that I’ll be exploring for a long time in my writing.
I know that poets such as Franny Choi, Chen Chen, Angel Nafis, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Natalie Diaz, and Fatimah Asghar have been important to you, and your work is like theirs in some ways and different in others. How do you see your work fitting into the contemporary poetry scene? And are there any recent poetry books that have deeply affected your writing?
It’s hard for me to answer the question of how I fit into the contemporary poetry scene! I’ll answer by sharing some of the things I’ve learned from the work of the folks you named: I learned that I can write as an act of care for my people, rather than a performance for someone else’s gaze. I learned that, contrary to inherited narratives about the (white, male) artistic genius creating alone in the woods, I create in community. Nothing would be possible for me without the people who check in on me, snuggle me, send me food, challenge me, and that includes my writing. I learned to lean into my weird. I learned that writing relies on noticing. I learned that I have a lineage, and that it’s my responsibility to seek it out and learn from it.
I feel deeply affected by a lot of what I read, and not just poetry, but also fiction, political essays, newsletters from politicized healing practitioners I admire, my friends’ Facebook posts. Some of the poetry books I’ve read most recently: The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi; Washes, Prays by Noor Naga; A Sand Book by Ariana Reines; Tonguebreaker by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha; Homie by Danez Smith.
On the subject of mental illness, you don’t shy away from articulating your trauma in your poetry—whether ongoing or well in the past. In haunt, for example, several poems allude to a sexual assault. What role does poetry have in facing trauma? Is putting it to paper cathartic or does it force you to relive trauma?
I think this is deeply personal—I can’t speak for others or know with any certainty what writing about traumatic experiences does for them, and I don’t want to dictate how anyone chooses to do it. On one hand, simply revisiting trauma or recalling its details can be re-traumatizing; catharsis, on its own, isn’t necessarily healing. On the other, turning my attention to myself, bringing a sense of curiosity, and even play, to traumatic experiences and their legacy, has been healing. My best intuition about this comes from trying to stay sensitive to what my body, and my nervous system, consent to when it comes to writing about trauma. If there is a resistance to sharing a particular story, I take that as important wisdom, and I don’t do it. It doesn’t mean I never will--just that part of me isn’t ready yet.
When you publish, you choose to write in all lowercase. I know that bell hooks, for example, wanted her name to be spelled in lowercase to shift the attention from her identity to her ideas. What does writing in lowercase mean to you?
I feel that standard capitalization gives too much weight to the beginning of each sentence and draws too much attention to the division between thoughts. When I write, and when I think, the transition from one idea to the next is not as discrete as that. I like that writing in lowercase sometimes means a reader has to spend more time with the words to understand the relationship between them. I also like the idea of choosing which conventions in English to adopt and which to reject; some of these conventions are arbitrary, the global domination of English over other languages is arbitrary (in the sense that it doesn’t have to be this way). I tend to play with punctuation and sentence structure in my writing for this same reason.
In haunt, I was particularly struck by the poems that address burgeoning queerness. You write “I can’t tell you when I knew I was queer // but last night I left my baby teeth / in your neck like a bouquet / of tombstones.” Were you always comfortable writing about this facet of your identity? Did you ever shy away from publishing queer work because you feared judgment—either familial or societal?
One of my friends, who is a brilliant artist, told me that all art is about fear and longing. That stuck with me. I am definitely someone who orients to longing in my writing, so it makes sense that I write a lot about queer desire. Longing, in itself, is a beautiful thing. But then it gets poisoned by fear—of losing the thing you want, or of being judged or punished for wanting it in the first place. A lot of that fear is real, but I try to let it serve as information for me, rather than a deterrent to writing about it.
You’ve mentioned your anxiety about writing about trauma versus exploiting it, which is a common concern among writers of marginalized groups. Cameron Awkward-Rich articulates this well, stating: “queer/trans sorrow are often consumed in ways that reinforce these systems rather than disrupt them.” In what ways does your poetry disrupt these systems? What is the place of “queer joy” in your work?
I’m trying to disrupt the oppressive systems that traumatize queer/trans people and then consume the packaged performance of that trauma from us as entertainment, by writing us as whole people, who live in contradiction and complexity. Power flattens; it creates victims and oppressors, who blame the victims for their own suffering. I think we defy that by being present to a full range of feeling: our rage, our grief, our boredom, our longing, our joy. This is necessary for writing, and for healing, and for connecting to our full selves in ways that collective resistance asks of us.
Your first full-length collection, sick, is forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press this summer. What terrain does this collection explore? How is it in conversation with your chapbooks?
sick features family ghosts, trauma, queerness, and madness; I feel like it shares some of its poems, its characters, and its narrator with my first chapbook, haunt. I wrote all these poems three to four years ago, at a time when I related to events in my life very differently, when I related to my diagnoses very differently, and when I had a lot more shame about who I am, even though I saw how much of that came from internalized racism and ableism. I feel like this is one of the challenges of publication’s long timeline; I have to work hard not to feel embarrassed about the person who wrote the poems that, two years later, I’m presenting to the world. I have an impulse to edit the poems to reflect who I am now, but that would be erasing who I was then. I wrote all our futures last year, mostly over a two-week period during a residency on the Toronto Islands. As a result, I associate it very particularly with that time and place, and the narrator feels much closer to me than the narrator of the poems in sick or haunt.
Readers might think of you as a poet of color, a nonbinary poet, a queer poet, a poet who struggles with mental illness, and a Canadian poet, and obviously you’re full of complexities. As a writer, how do you think about identity and persona? Similarly, readers might describe you as a “poet of witness”—you bear witness to your own life and experiences and also offer a voice to the LGBTQIA+ community (among others). What do you think the role of witness is in poetry?
In the process of listing my new chapbook, all our futures, for sale, I had to choose three “categories” for my work to fall under: I ended up choosing “Poetry,” “Asian and Asian American,” and “LGBTQIA,” but I think this exercise of compartmentalizing and commodifying identity is so ridiculous. When I write down a line or feel drawn to an image, I’m not thinking about which identity box it fits into. As you’ve said, even if different aspects of identity are highlighted in different contexts, it’s all always there in the writing, because I’m the person who wrote them.
For me, the more important question is about power. I think art should always contend with power. How am I using language to disrupt the systems that distribute care and dignity unevenly, that enact violence and systematic abandonment unevenly, depending on people’s position in those systems and whether they are deemed worthy of living? Language can sanitize acts of violence. The government can lionize essential frontline workers while treating them as disposable; they can talk about reopening the economy without calling it what it is, which is a legitimization of social death for poor and racialized and disabled people who will not survive. So yes, in that sense, I do think poetry has an important role in witnessing, in pointing out the contradictions in language that trick us into accepting all kinds of atrocities.
In another sense, I think we—in communities of resistance—need to witness each other deeply, too. Witnessing each other’s grief and longing, expressing it through gathering and ritual, building relationship in order to act together, has always been how we move through experiences of crisis and oppression. I think about: how can I, in bearing witness to myself, offer my vulnerability to the reader as a way of building relationship with them? That’s something I’m always trying to do, too. ⋆
Poet Jody Chan is a writer, organizer, Taiko drummer, and therapist-in-training based in Toronto. They are the poetry editor for Hematopoeisis, a 2017 VONA alum, a member of the Winter Tangerine Workshops Team, and the 2018 winner of the Third Coast Poetry Contest. Their work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is published in BOAAT, Looseleaf Magazine, Nat. Brut, The Shade Journal, and elsewhere. They can be found online at www.jodychan.com and offline in bookstores or dog parks.
Interviewer Despy Boutris's work is published or forthcoming in American Poetry Review, American Literary Review, Southern Indiana Review, Copper Nickel, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches at the University of Houston, works as Assistant Poetry Editor for Gulf Coast, and serves as Editor-in-Chief of The West Review.