Sunday, May 15, 2011

Marilyn Chin

Wow, am I behind on these posts. Pleading bar mitzvah preparation overwhelm. And yes, in response to the question I've been asked over and over, it IS easier the third time! (But it's still not EASY.)

Okay. Enough of all that. I'm better now. Poet Marilyn Chin came to Butler several weeks ago, and I couldn't attend her reading -- had class. I was lucky, though, that someone on the English department faculty took pity on me and allowed me to sit in on a class Marilyn was visiting. So I spent an hour with Chin, the instructor (Thanks, Rob!) and 15 undergrads. It was a blast. Marilyn didn't pack an attitude. She was happy to sit back and have a casual literary chat with anyone who showed an interest. The shade of pink that washed over the faces of the boys (men?) in class when she tossed out the words "vagina and pussy" made me wish I could take her out for a pitcher of margaritas that night. Alas, I never knew if she would be game, she was leaving town that afternoon.

Chin spoke of Asian-American literature, saying that all roads lead back to Maxine Hong Kingston. She also spoke of poets, saying that although it is natural for poets to transition into nonfiction, she likes the freedom of fiction, making stuff up. She has enjoyed how Vixen has expanded her readership, and bemoaned that poetry in America has become institutionalized, and has a narrow audience. Chin told us she grew up in a stereotypical Asian family, one that pushed for excellence, despite her grandmother's illiteracy. Her grandmother, who demanded top performance, couldn't read Chin's report card!

She spoke about her book, "The Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen," a genre-bending novel that might be more appropriately described as a collection of linked stories. This was, she said, her first attempt at prose, rather than the poetry she is famous for. She told us that in Vixen, she "cross-dressed" into a different genre, the stories arising from an autobiographical truth, which is not the same as fact. (A point I have recently smacked my head against -- a story for another day.) In Vixen Chin messed with the facts, but wrote basic truths. This book was ten years in the making, stemming from several isolated short stories based on translations of old Zen tales. Her editor liked these so much she asked for more. After 100 pages Chin realized she had no idea how to finish the book. She wanted something that could be called a story cycle, or composite novel, but had to see how the parts contributed to the whole.

In "cross-dressing" into the world of fiction Chin had to stretch. She told us her mind works like a poet: line by line. Thinking in paragraphs was painful. She did a lot of homework to see what a story cycle would look like. She had to teach herself how to read a novel, and read Hemingway to learn structure.

One final pearl from Chin on poetry: It's what you leave out of a poem that gives it its mystery.

Til next time,

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