During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Jasmine An.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?
Jasmine An: I think that poetry fits my creative process because I am a slow thinker and not necessarily a visual one. Often times, I write poems to learn and to sift through my own thoughts. I won’t know the entirety of what I was attempting to say with a poem until I reach the often times surprising conclusion. There are other slow mediums in the world: oil paint, granite, gardening, but I trust my mind’s eye, and the readers minds’ eyes to interpret the sound of words into visual image if that is what is needed. I think I enjoy something of that ambiguity, the slowing of an extra layer of translation from language to ear or eye to imagination that poetry and other forms of writing necessitate.
As for the poebiz landscape: When I send poems out into the world, I hope that someone else can learn or feel something from the reading, just as I did from the writing. In order to write, and write urgently, I need to convince myself that I have something important to say. I think broadcasting and sharing is a crucial part of writing for me because believing my own thoughts are important enough to shape into a poem and send out is punching directly against the little self doubting thoughts, the haters, the sundry systematic and institutional forces that try to tell me my life and experiences aren’t worth voicing.
FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
JA: Recently, my influences, or you could say inspirations, are history and inheritance, haunting and ancestral ghosts. In particular, my first ever chapbook Naming the No-Name Woman, which is coming out this February, is a collection of poems that I wrote around the figure of Anna May Wong. Wong was the first Chinese-American Hollywood star. She began acting as a child in 1919 and continued to act in both the States and Europe until her death in 1961. She is fascinating to me. Her career was dogged by racism and anti-miscengenation laws that prevented her from receiving leading roles because it wouldn’t do for her to kiss a white male lead. The roles she was typecast into often represented the most basic stereotypes of Asian femininity (the erotic Dragon Lady, or the submissive Lotus Blossom). Yet, there she was, in Hollywood during the mid 1900s, acting in major films like no Chinese-American woman had done before.
In writing the poems of the chapbook, I focused on Wong as both a historical and a mythical figure. Her presence in Hollywood grew beyond her as an individual and, for good or ill, became the archetype of Asian American femininity in the national imagination. To write, I watched her films and was shaken by both the beauty and pain I saw in them. I read biographies and interviews, academic texts on racial formation and literary psychoanalysis, and researched symbolically loaded facts from the natural world (butterfly migration patterns, care tips for Chinese water dragons), and then brought all of these disparate facts together to triangulate my own voice and experiences.
My recent project of writing about/around Anna May Wong centers around the idea of inheritance, or the haunting way the past reaches out and touches the present. In a way, I consider myself haunted by Anna May Wong, and/or her legacy. I must wrestle with what I have inherited from her and I do so through my poems.
FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?
JA: I’m a poet who started out as a tween writing novels for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and then wrote short stories through high school and didn’t write a poem until college. I believe in the weird and the surreal and the seemingly arbitrary image that suddenly reveals itself as the perfect metaphor. I believe in the small things that become large, or the quiet that implodes into such an absence of sound your ears must stand up and take notice. But perhaps because of my beginnings in prose, I believe in narrative most of all. Whether I am reading or working on my own writing, I always look for narrative. It is the hook that keeps me with a poem while I read, or anchors me to a poem that I’m working on. The presence of narrative reminds me of why I’m writing, what I hope to learn, and how I will draw the reader along with me.
In my own writing, I also I strive to follow Stanley Kunitz’s advice to young poets when he says that they must “polarize their contradictions.” In my poems, I embrace both the individual and the archetype, the “exotic” Chineseness and the 3rd generation Midwesternness that are both integral parts of myself and my work. These are my contradictions. Adhering to a strong sense of narrative allows me greater freedom to play with the paradoxical and the bizarre. Five legged frogs, my childhood memories on 9/11 and a horse with a broken hip can all exist in the same poem if there is a strong enough narrative backbone to hold them together.
FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
JA: I think really the only possible thing I can talk about here is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. I’m born in the year of the Monkey and ever since I was little both of my grandmas were telling me the story of the Monkey King. Sun Wukong is actually a character in a T’ang dynasty epic Journey To The West written by Wu Cheng-en. Journey To The West is a long and moralistic tale about a band of misfits seeking redemption by guiding a priest to retrieve the holy scriptures of Buddhism. However, when my grandmas told me the story, the storyline never really focused on Monkey’s journey to the west, but rather on his youthful exploits before that killjoy priest showed up. In my childhood, Monkey was less a priest’s companion than a trickster, a monkey god with fantastical magical powers who ate the peaches of immortality and overthrew heaven before losing a bet with the Buddha and being imprisoned underneath a mountain for five hundred years.
In undergrad, Monkey King returned to my life with a vengeance. As I was trying to figure out a single topic I could write about for ten weeks straight during an Advanced Poetry workshop, Monkey suddenly struck me as the epitome of the “bad Asian.” Monkey is not quiet, he is not polite, he does not sit still, he is nobody’s model minority. He is brash and loud and arrogant and demands to be recognized. What if, I thought, I wrote poems that placed Monkey in the Midwest? What if I was Monkey? What if I wasn’t Monkey? What if Monkey was here? That chapbook length series of poems, christened Monkey Was Here, after the scene where Monkey pees on Buddha’s hand and writes his name on the base of one of Buddha’s fingers, marks a turning point, I think, in my own writing. Writing to and through Monkey lit something in my poetry, a brashness of my own, and a desire to craft my own mythology of Midwestern Chinese-Americanness and then scrawl it across the bones of this place where I was born.
FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
JA: Right now I am absolutely in love with the chapbook Here I Go, Torching by Carlina Duan. The chapbook is the 2015 winner of the Edna Meudt Memorial Award from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and centers around “documenting ‘American girlhood’ and ultimately redefining it… What, and who, is an ‘American girl’?” Carlina is a dear, dear friend of mine dating back to our high school days and has continually been an inspiration to me as both a human and a writer. The poems in this collection are utterly fierce and snappy. They rely on short lines and popping language that is absolutely at odds with my own writing style but all the more inspiring to me because of that difference. I am so in awe of the enormity of feeling boiling from these poems. Stylistically, this work reminds me of a cross between Aracelis Girmay and Lucille Clifton. Thematically, all of these poems make me weep for the truth in them.
Perhaps the most surprising and delightful book I’ve stumbled across in the past year is The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. It is a children’s chapter book told from the viewpoint of a gorilla living in a roadside mall exhibit. This unexpected book contains more depth of feeling and more truth bombs than many books of poetry. Ivan is a generous and heartfelt narrator. The prose is simple, yet all the more compelling for that simplicity. Secretly, this book is a better illustration of the transformation from apathy to social justice warrior than any soapbox essay or video clip. But at its heart, this is a story about a gorilla who comes to love a baby elephant and is determined to make her world better. I listened to the majority of this book on CD while driving across the Midwest as long as it was playing I wished I could drive forever.
FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?
JA: I don’t think so! These were great questions, Fox, and I learned a lot about my own process while answering them! Thank you for that!
FFF: Thanks for participating in our series, Jasmine!
Jasmine An is a queer, third generation Chinese-American who comes from the Midwest. A recent graduate of Kalamazoo College, she has also lived in New York City and Chiang Mai, Thailand, studying poetry, urban development, and blacksmithing. Her chapbook, Naming the No-Name Woman, was selected as the winner of the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming in February 2016. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in HEArt Online, Stirring, Heavy Feather Review, and Southern Humanities Review. As of 2016, she can be found in Chiang Mai continuing her study of the Thai language.
Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.