Katie: One of my favorite things about your work is how experimental and intentional you are with different forms. The visual aspect of your poems is always a striking element of the individual pieces, and the way they build on each other is so strong in your suites.
How do you approach a piece? How does form happen for you?
Kristin: I’m so glad you find my forms intentional/experimental – I myself feel a little self-conscious about form because I tend to rely a lot on the couplet form, which is sometimes incredibly generative (I think of the couplet form as a braiding of language down the page) and sometimes limiting (as a form that I default to). But I try to think about form as something that’s not just a vessel for the language but an actual content – white space and line breaks and language as equal presences. I’ve also really been thinking a lot about colonialist language, and how language has historically been used to violently occupy space – so I try to resist that by thinking, how can I co-exist with space? How can I channel what is unwritten/phantom/ghost on this page? What is the unspoken trauma here? In that way, I try to determine what space needs to speak for itself.
Katie: I like what you said a lot about form being actual content– so often it just gets written off as a strictly stylistic choice.
As someone who engages so intensely with trauma and identity (and how the two wrap around each other), how do you step into and out of poems? How do you live in and with them?
Kristin: I’ve actually been talking about this idea a lot with my friend and artist-soulmate Ja – she mentioned how there’s this “western” or more European idea of healing as a process of dispersal (the idea of purification, washing, cleanliness, etc) that’s really dangerous, and how she’s really interested in things like acupuncture because it’s about marking the site of trauma and healing through summoning – summoning energy to that site. And that really resonated with me because I want my poems to be a kind of summoning – summoning ghosts, selves, pasts, memory. I want my poems to be embodied, living things, not so much a disembodied voice or vessel. I really feel your phrasing of “living” a poem – I think every poem is trying to summon a self, and a lot of times what arrives is a specter or a hauntedness, and it’s not so much about purging or exorcising, which I think are really Eurocentric ideas, but about letting the ghost in – and seeing what she can create.
Katie: I love the idea of letting the ghost in. Ollie Schminkey once had a great point about healing, about how the common narrative implies that survivors have to return to “normalcy–” to be acceptable to be considered “healed.”
There’s a lot of power in inviting the ghosts to live with you, to rewriting and reframing, to creating with instead of against. I hear you.
Speaking of artist soulmates, how does community play a part in your art-making?
Kristin: Yes, I love that idea! Thank you.
I like to think that art-making is a form of community-building – the identity and voice that I’m writing through is as much about reaching outward as it is about reaching inward or reflecting. I’m invested in trying to create this imagined kinship with my reader – not like, the white gaze, but who I’m really speaking to – and hopefully that poem becomes a bridge between bodies. I’m also hugely influenced by my friends, by my immigrant community, by my family – and my relationships are the resonant source behind so much of what I write about. And it all flows back, because they’re the first people to receive my work as well. It also makes me think about that moment when you’ve written something and you haven’t shown it to anybody and you’re almost afraid to look at it – I’ve been having those moments a lot lately, and though it can be a beautiful silence, there’s also this constant terror of like, what if this poem is born alone and never finds its community? Who needs to read this? And sometimes that ends up just being me or like, the one person I was thinking about while writing it. I’m growing more and more averse to the word “audience” because it makes me think about how white people expect me perform trauma, to stage it for them – and I want to be as far from that as possible. I think words like “lineage” and “community” are really important in resisting the language of like, marketability and performativity, if that makes sense.
Katie: That definitely makes sense, and I think goes back to what you said earlier about creating the space of your poems. I had a mentor once who said, “the point of art is to communicate.” In that, of course, is the implication that there’s someone (often many, many someones) we want to communicate to/with.
As a writer, as a reader, and as a poetry editor, how do you approach the work of others through those different lenses?
Kristin: When I’ve read something that really moves or startles of excites me, I always have this urge to read it out loud, to embody it. And at the same time, sometimes I feel like the work demands space or a moment of silence. I always have very physical reactions to work that I read, and so even when I’m talking about poetry communities in seemingly abstract/on-the- internet/through-the- computer way, the process of reading actually is constantly involving body and space. I’m trying more and more to write without thinking of audience/my performing body, to exit that self-objectifying state – and to think more about embodying. Writing through ritual and prayer, interestingly, has always brought me closest to my body lately.
Katie: I hear that, and love what you’ve said about embodiment. There’s something so special about world-making in poem– that the way a writer gives you a moment can change your world a little bit, or completely. I remember reading your poem “Outcall #” and coming upon the word “melonbelly”; and just stopping still. That was a gift of a phrase.
It’s been incredible hearing about your process, and how much care you handle your work and other’s with.
So finally, I have to ask– what are you excited about right now? What’s going on in your world?
Kristin: Thank you so much for your kind words – I really appreciate the care you put into reading my work! I’m such a fan of yours.
I actually have a chapbook coming out next October with Black Lawrence Press and I’m both agonized by it and very excited – most of the poems in the chapbook are unpublished and very much in draft form so I’m terrified that they’ll never be done, and most of all, that they’ll disappoint people, including myself. I think it also marks a major change in style and theme for me – what I’m struggling with right now is how to reclaim pleasure, how to be more than my suffering, which is something that many other writers I admire are also talking about. Like, how do I write about the trauma inflicted by men in my life while at the same time not centering them? How do I center woman-woman relationships in my work? How do I write a love poem or a sex poem? How do I write about faith? I’m excited to grapple with this, and to explore the closeness between violence and desire, sincerity and cliche. I love what you’re saying about world-building, and in the future I hope to write worlds that don’t just replicate my realities but reinvent them, re-story them.
Kristin Xinming Chang lives in NY & works for Winter Tangerine. She is a former freelance writer for Teen Vogue & a current college student. Her debut chapbook “PAST LIVES, FUTURE BODIES” is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (Oct. 2018).