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10 Questions for Marilyn Chin

Chaos said, “O, Mei Ling, give me eyes so that I can admire your beauty.” So, Mei Ling punctured two wounds into his forehead. And as he gazed longingly into her eyes, Chaos said, “Oh beautiful one, I can’t smell your sweet scent.” So, Mei Ling cut two holes for his nostrils. Chaos said, “O melodious poet, give me two ears, so that I can hear your fine poems.” Again, Mei Ling obliged. . . . —from “Chaos Had No Eyes,” Winter 2018 (Volume 59, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I remember finishing a poem called “The End of a Beginning” and thought that it was a cool poem. I was 24. Now, it appears as the opening poem in A Portrait of the Self as Nation, my new and selected poems decades later! The perfect first poem for the volume.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Everybody influenced me! I read widely and voraciously and poetry from different languages and eras. Tang Dynasty poetry is an important foundation and I have been nurtured by the different eras of poetry written in English.

What other professions have you worked in?
I have worked as a translator and editor for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. After finishing my MFA, I worked as a social worker/adult ed. teacher at a private psychiatric hospital in Vallejo, CA. In my youth, I waitressed and bus-girled in a variety of restaurants, including my uncle’s chopsuey joint in Oregon and at Goten Hibachi restaurant, down here in Sunderland, Mass. when I was a student at UMASS. I wore a fake kimono whilst serving sake!

Did some outside agitating in San Francisco! If that could be considered a “profession.” Then, I became a professor of creative writing for a zillion years.

What did you want to be when you were young?
A poet, a painter. Or an Angela Davis-type fierce revolutionary. Of course, I didn’t have the guts for the latter.

What inspired you to write this piece?
Before Trump was elected I had crazy nightmares that augured his presidency. Apocalyptic landscapes and ghoulish lovers. I have been writing lots of haibun and prose poems. I love the wide yet controlled canvas of the single-page form. It is a form where I could straddle the in-between weird space that is both poem and prose and has a strange whiff of otherness.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I was born in a cold-water flat in Hong Kong during a tumultuous time, with streets filled with refugees from China. No, I am NOT a crazy rich Asian. The chaos never left me.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I do a lot of things to avoid the desk. I work on poems to avoid solving problems in my fiction and work on fiction to stew on my poems. Takes a long time to finish work. But, of course, I eventually finish. Thank the Goddess!

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Sometimes, I send poems to my friend Bob Grunst, a poet that I knew from my Iowa Workshop years. But, I am a solitary creature. Writing in my little dungeon or whilst meandering the globe.

What are you working on currently?
More poems and wild-girl fiction, the second installment to REVENGE OF THE MOONCAKE VIXEN. Really political and fierce work. I’m also writing poems of different shapes and sizes and voices…experimenting with traditional forms as well as flying high with weird mixes. My usual intercultural tinkering.

What are you reading right now?
This week, I am reading the Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula Le Guin and will delve into her poetry as well. She came to my reading in Cannon Beach, Oregon, many years ago and she bought my first book Dwarf Bamboo. I was so moved by her support.

I am immersing into the collected works of women writers. Adrienne Rich’s big collected monument is sitting at my bedside. I taught The Collected Poems of Rita Dove last year. Rereading Anna Akhmatova with my Ukrainian boyfriend. Rereading Trinh Minh-ha. I wanna read and reread these big-hearted women writers! Reading their collected works is a way to pay homage and to say “thank you for all you’ve done for the world.”


MARILYN CHIN'S award-winning poems and tales are Asian American classics and are taught all over the world. Her newest book is A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems. Presently, she serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She lives in San Diego.

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