Spotlight Poetry: An Interview with Kenji C. Liu & Ching-In Chen

Posted Fri, 9/13/2019 - 9:54am by  |  Category: , , ,

On September 26, poets Kenji C. Liu and Ching-In Chen will read from their latest work as part of our first-ever Spotlight Poetry night.

Spotlight readings feature writers whose work transcends, engages, and recontextualizes poetry in the current moment. We recently caught up with them to learn more about their paths to poetry, their upcoming classes at Hugo House, and what they’re most looking forward to about the reading.

Kenji C. Liu

How did you first get started as a poet?

I’ve always been an artist, but didn’t take creative writing seriously until after I was accepted into a week-long VONA poetry workshop with Suheir Hammad. I credit Suheir with pushing me out the door and telling me I was ready to publish. That was an important turning point for me, and Ching-In Chen was in that workshop too. It’s nice to still be doing this work with Ching-In years later.

The other thing that helped me take it seriously was going through a social justice anthropology masters program. The scholars and writers we read were extremely inventive because they were trying to step through and beyond the inherited ways our thinking and acting are circumscribed by centuries of colonization and capitalism. The poetics of their work inspired me to think of poetry not just as art, but as intervention.

Your newest collection, Monsters I Have Been, was published earlier this year. Tell us a little bit about the process of writing and organizing this collection.

After my first collection, Map of an Onion, I was trying to figure out how to transition into a new project. While on the Kundiman retreat, I received some great advice—to find something in the first collection that still had juice, and to explore that even further. That led me down the path of writing about toxic masculinity, something that came out of my interest in the legacies of gender dynamics in my family. I credit all my fellow queer and feminist friends, scholars, and activists for the inspiration and challenge.

How did you develop your approach to experimental poetry and frankenpo in particular? 

It grew out of necessity, from trying to find creative inspiration beyond the limitations of my individual life. I was tired of western-style forms, genres, and ways of expressing the self as a writer. I wanted to find a more multilingual, less self-referential way of writing, one that challenged convention in its very process of creation. I became interested in composting texts that already exist the world—speeches, scripts, articles, songs, divinations—in order to question the politics of their existence. In the process, new texts came into existence—poems, of a sort—that speak back to the originals in strange ways.

Your class, Monsters I Will Be: Experimental Poetics and Politics, is coming up on September 28. What inspired you to focus on the topics of experimental poetry and politics? What can students expect to take away from the class?

I think right now we need to find new ways to critique the status quo while also creating meaningful art. The experimental methods I used to write Monsters I Have Been are attempts to do this. We often shy away from the word politics when it comes to poetry because we think of work that is didactic or obvious. But I start from the perspective that all poetry is political, so let’s free ourselves from that judgment. 

We will learn to use existing texts, documents, archives, as fodder for new work. We will experiment with randomness and chance, with strangeness, mutation, and taxidermy. We will be purposefully political in our writing and editing choices but play with letting the poem become what it wants to be. Students in my class will come away with a sense of how experimenting with process can actually free a writer from the burden of waiting for inspiration.

Before your class, on September 26, you’ll be reading your work with Ching-In Chen as part of our Spotlight Poetry series. What are you most looking forward to about reading with Ching-In? 

Ching-In and I have been friends for quite some time, as activists first, then as poets. It’s been a pleasure to see how our activism has continued to inform our creative projects. I look forward not just to reading together, but also hopefully having a great conversation about our works, which are experimental and political in their unique ways.

Ching-In Chen

How did you first get started as a poet?

I hated poetry when I was in school because I was only taught a very narrow slice of what poetry could be. But I always considered myself a storyteller—I told myself stories to keep myself company as a lonely, awkward kid. It wasn’t until I worked as a community organizer in the Bay Area and witnessed spoken word artists and poets in the community that I realized how powerful the word can be—to change the mood of a crowd, to shape the journey of a community. I realized how much of the world could be evoked in such a tiny amount of space. At that time, because I worked long hours, very short public transit rides were the constraint which provided a structure for my writing and to say the things I needed to say.

What can you tell us about the process behind your latest collection, recombinant?

Much of my writing focuses on making sense of what it’s like to grow up as the firstborn child of immigrants, often times in the cracks of other people’s stories, dreams, and expectations. I had to learn how to use language to shape my experience into meaning, but also to listen deeply to other sources of hidden history (familial, communal) such as personal narratives, maps, historical dates, and imaginings. By “reading” these sources deeply and taking poetic impressions, recombinant creates layers from the debris of the fractures of history to re-imagine our relationships to each other.

You’ve also worked as a community organizer. How, if at all, has your experience as a community organizer informed your writing (and vice versa)?

Though writing is often a very personal experience, my time working as a community organizer taught me how to connect my own thread towards a larger narrative, to consider how my own experience lives alongside those of others. Much of this impulse comes from trying to make an unlikely relationship with others, to try to find what we share in common. 

Your class, Say It Loud!, is coming up on September 28. What inspired you to focus on the topic of developing one’s poetic voice? What can students expect to take away from the class?

As a child, I wanted desperately to erase myself and not be seen or noticed. I didn’t understand the value of my own experience or voice. Learning how to listen to myself and to speak in my own language was a process of coming to know and trust myself, which I think is oftentimes a fundamental thing to understand about the writing process. In the class, students will take away strategies for how to honor their own voices, stories, and experiences and trust in their own creative processes. 

Before your class, on September 26, you’ll be reading your work with Kenji C. Liu as part of our Spotlight Poetry series. What are you most looking forward to about reading with Kenji? 

I know Kenji from my time in the Bay Area, when I was first discovering my voice as a writer and community organizer. I’m excited to read and see what kinds of conversations cross-pollinate in our work.  

Join us September 26 to hear both of these amazing poets read their work.