In this interview, James Shaw discusses with Wendy Chin-Tanner her brand-new book of poems, Anyone Will Tell You. Their conversation covers fertility and infertility, motherhood, and the struggle of two miscarriages. They also unpack how Chin-Tanner’s experience writing a graphic novel influences her poetry, the role of nature in poetry, the practicing of keeping a very “cheap” notebook on hand to write things down in, and what makes for good poetry.
Shaw: Your bio on the back of Anyone Will Tell You explains that both of your parents are immigrants. A lot of your work in the book mentions parenthood (more specifically motherhood). How did growing up with immigrant parents affect your view on poetry and the arts?
Chin-Tanner: I think being a child of immigrants made me an observer of culture because aspects of my home life, like language, food, manners, and beliefs, differed from those of the majority. Rather than accepting what people thought and did on face value, witnessing those differences made me ask why and how, and those questions, that curiosity is where the spark of my interest in the arts was ignited.
Shaw: In your poem “Index,” you talk about two miscarriages. First, I want to say that you don’t have to feel obligated to answer this question if you aren’t comfortable with it. That being said, do you find that writing about pain and loss is a cathartic process for you when it comes to poetry? Is it something you would suggest that all poets try, or only certain types of writers?
Chin-Tanner: I wrote through my experiences with fertility struggle in real time because the writing of them became a coping mechanism against the isolation and silencing around both miscarriage and infertility. While I absolutely support people in their right to medical privacy, for me, creating solidarity and community through breaking silence and sharing information, experiences, and resources about miscarriage and secondary infertility was vital. It was the best way I could find to resist despair. Crafting poems about my thoughts, feelings, and experiences in that space lent them an urgency and immediacy, but it also gave me an outlet for exploring the many complexities and contradictions of my positionality as a woman of color of a particular age, place, and class, married to a white man and already the mother of one child. Part of my long term feminist project manifested here in my exploration of the relationship between the personal and the political, and the permission I have given myself to write about trauma and dare to publish it as art.
Shaw: What do you think poetry is for? In my class we’ve discussed the “meaning” of poetry a lot, and after reading some of your works, I can’t help but find myself wondering what your personal poetry philosophy is? What makes a poem good, bad, average, etc. What do you look for when you’re reading another poet’s work?
Chin-Tanner: As W.S. Merwin says, poetry is one of our earliest forms of literature. It is the attempt to say the unsayable. People reach for it in moments of crisis and celebration, for births, marriages, funerals, and other rites of passage. W.H. Auden says that poetry is “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I agree with both those definitions. As for what makes a poem good or bad, I return to the words of one of my mentors who differentiated between letters to yourself and letters to the universe. If you write a poem that is a letter to yourself, a poem that doesn’t resonate beyond the realm of your own experience to touch on a greater truth or feeling, then that is a poem to keep in your journal. If you write a poem that is a letter to the universe, a poem that is grounded in the specificity of experience (which or may not be your own) but that also reaches simultaneously for a greater, universal set of thoughts, feelings, and truths, then that is a successful poem. What I look for in other poets’ work is what moves me, plain and simple.
Shaw: I saw the graphic novel you co-wrote called American Terrorist. Did you incorporate any of your poetry skills into that work, or did any of your fiction writing skills become incorporated into your poetry writing?
Chin-Tanner: My husband is a graphic novelist and publisher, and we co-founded his publishing company A Wave Blue World in 2005 and co-wrote American Terrorist together, so I’ve worked in the field of sequential art—comics and graphic novels—for 14 years now. What’s especially interesting to me about sequential art is the relationship between different parts of the page because visual storytelling requires that the artist guide the eye from panel to panel. And then the relationship between the image and the text also has to be considered since it can render another level of conflict, tension, or drama to the reader’s experience of the story. Negative space is just as important as what is put on the page. So I do think that this awareness comes to bear in Anyone Will Tell You, particularly in the trisyllabic tercet form that I developed, which seeks to guide the eye from line to line in the most efficient way possible, without punctuation or capitalizations, with elision and the natural cadence of the English language alone.
Shaw: In your poem, “The Mother In This Poem Is Me Or You Or Your Mother,” you mention “our daily bread” and you talk about the mother of this poem being that daily bread. A few other things that stood out to me as what could be religious references are the titles, “Lapsarian” and “Before The Fall.” With these religious reference being placed in your book, I can’t help but wonder how religion has affected your artistic outlets.
Chin-Tanner: I did not grow up religious but Judeo-Christian imagery and literature permeate western culture to the extent that they are conventional tropes of what we consider to be classics. As a student of western literature (I have a BA and MA in English Literature from Cambridge University), these tropes were influential to me and as a writer who presumes to situate herself in the category of western literature, I find it both interesting and important to engage in poetic conversation with those tropes.
Shaw: Your poems have a lot of imagery of the moon and sea, such in poems like “Supermoon” and “Blue Moon” with lines like, “Is pale, full-bodied, but scarred. You’re old, / I suppose, a sterile rock” and “Burning outside the window, yellower, / leaning closer than ever before, // circling us circling the unseen sun.” How important do you feel like nature is to poetry? What role has nature played in helping you develop your personal poetics?
Chin-Tanner: I consider the division between nature and humanity to be a false dichotomy. We are a part of nature just as nature is all around us. In this book, the imagery of the moon pertains to fertility but natural imagery on the whole speaks to the commentary that I wanted to make about the relationship between human beings and our environment. This relationship is at times nurturing, adversarial, fraught, and abusive.
Shaw: Motherhood is a huge part of your works. How has your own mother inspired some of your works, and how have your adventures of being a mother inspired you?
Chin-Tanner: I became a mother to a daughter at the same age that my mother gave birth to me, so that created a kind of dual perspective of looking at the past and the present simultaneously. I could see myself as a child again through the eyes of my own child. I’m very interested in the way in which motherhood is like a blank canvas in our culture on which we project many different narratives, discourses, and fantasies. I’m interested in the many different faces that a mother can wear and the many different ways that we look at mothers. Being a parent has taught me that the divine spark can be found in the embrace of imperfection and that failure, the acceptance and acknowledgment of it in a poem, is what makes it all the more brave, fierce, and beautiful. I suppose another word for this is humility. Parenting has also made me more professional and focused, possibly out of a desire to prove that being a mother does not equate to being functionally incompetent or unreliable, but also because I have developed a whole new set of superior tools around multitasking and time management.
Shaw: What is the most difficult part of writing a poem for you?
Chin-Tanner: Accepting defeat. Accepting that sometimes, even if you’ve revised and revised a poem eleventy-billion times, it still won’t work and you just have to let it go. But even then, I don’t delete it. I keep it around in case there’s a line here or there that might work elsewhere.
Shaw: Is poetry a full time job for you? We’ve had multiple discussions about this in my class, and I was curious to discuss this with a published author. If so, what does the life of a full time poet look like? Some of the struggles, moments of “eureka!”, etc. If not, how do you find time to squeeze in poetry work (and successful poetry work, at that) into your daily life?
Chin-Tanner: Most poets, myself included, have one or more side hustles. I used to teach sociology and do freelance editing work in addition to poetry, but now I’m the Executive Director and co-publisher at A Wave Blue World and I teach creative writing occasionally. I’m also, of course, a full time parent.
Fortunately, it works for me to have to juggle and multitask because my writing anxiety tends to be triggered more when I have to create my own schedule than when I have external schedules imposed upon me. I need to commit to working for relatively short blocks of time in order to not feel pressured and overwhelmed, which I think is probably why my oddball version of a writing process clicked into place for me after I became a parent. Before then, I had a lot of problems with procrastination, writer’s block, and perfectionism. This way, if I wind up working “overtime,” it’s a bonus.
One thing about being a parent is that I have become intimately acquainted with the inevitability of failure. Nothing goes as planned and you just have to roll with it. I like to keep very cheap notebooks lying around wherever I might be resting or reading, I mean, the cheaper the better because if it’s a fancy notebook, I feel pressure to write only something “good” and I self-edit too much. Whatever line, image, or thought might occur to me throughout the day or night ends up in one of those cheap-o notebooks, along with snippets of things from the Internet or from the books I’m reading. When some of those things spark a plan for a poem, or if I have some time to sit down and draft something, I go back to the notebooks and write out a first draft by hand.
This part of the process is as free and unconscious as I can allow it to be. Then I quickly transfer it onto the computer where I start revising. I’m a chronic and prodigious reviser.
Shaw: What advice would you give an up-and-coming poet?
Chin-Tanner: I really love this Octavia Butler quote: “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” And one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about the business end (pun intended) of writing is that rejections are inevitable, dealing with them is just a part of being a professional writer, and the best way to handle them is to make a few changes and send the work right back out again. This goes for submissions of individual poems to journals as well as manuscripts to publishers.