Disrupting Forms, Multiple Selves and Migrating Bodies:
A Conversation between Ely Shipley and Ching-In Chen

Ely Shipley's first book of poems, Boy with Flowers, won the 2007 Barrow Street Press book prize judged by Carl Phillips, and was published in October of 2008. Winner of the Writer’s Award in Poetry from the Western Humanities Review judged by Edward Hirsch and the Virginia Faulkner Award from Prairie Schooner, Shipley was also a finalist for the Academy of American Poets’ Levis prize judged by Susan Howe in 2007 and for the James Hearst Award from the North American Review judged by Li-Young Lee in 2003. His poems appear in Willow Springs, Florida Review, Phoebe, Greensboro Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Diagram, Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, Third Coast, LTTR and Bloom. He has taught creative writing, literature, and gender studies at Purdue University and the University of Utah, and frequently facilitates workshops with queer youth. He currently lives in Salt Lake City, where he is a PhD candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Utah.
Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart's Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2009). Daughter of Chinese immigrants and a Kundiman Fellow, Ching-In has worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston. Ching-In Chen's poetry has been featured at poetry readings across the country, including Poets Against Rape, Word from the Streets, and APAture Arts Festival: A Window on the Art of Young Asian Pacific Americans. Her work has been recently published in Iron Horse Literary Review, OCHO, Water~Stone Review, and the anthology Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves. She has won an Oscar Wilde honorable mention for "Two River Girls," a poem from The Heart's Traffic. Ching-In has also been awarded residencies and fellowships from Soul Mountain Retreat, Vermont Studio Center, and the Paden Institute. Ching-In Chen currently lives in Riverside, CA, where she is in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of California Riverside.

Ely Shipley: Ching-In, it's been a real pleasure to read The Heart's Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2009); I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss it with you. I'm struck again and again by the ways in which the poems manifest multiplicity. This often seems to begin with a doubling, such as two columns of text on the page; the relationship between the two girls, Xiaomei and Sparrow; a word that elicits double meanings, such as coolie; a phrase that can be read several ways, such as in one section's title, "The Still Migrating Body" [my emphasis], and so on. I am reminded of W.E.B. Dubois' concept of double consciousness. This notion seems to be at the heart of your poetic. I wonder if I'm reading this right; could you speak to this observation? How conscious of this idea, or one like it, were you in writing these poems? How did you make this experience of duality, or multiplicity, concrete, specifically in making formal decisions?
Ching-In Chen: Thanks so much, Ely, for your insightful questions. I'm excited to have the opportunity to talk poems with you! The idea of multiplicity (and its embodiment in the multi-voiced poem) is something I've been exploring in my work so I'm glad that you picked up on it. I necessarily had to inhabit multiple consciousness, growing up as the daughter of immigrants and negotiating the different worlds I encountered. Having said that, I didn't set out with a vision for how the book would turn out when I first began. I got a glimpse of Xiaomei and "followed the brush," as one would say about the poetic form of zuihitsu. The book and Xiaomei's story grew organically as I wrote. Eventually, different voices started speaking to me and demanding their own poems in their own voices and poetic forms. The decisions I made in the book were both in the spirit of attempting to embody what the poems (and the voices in them) wanted as well as pushing myself to the next level of my craft. The entire book is a departure from my earlier work, where I focused almost exclusively on writing from my own lived experience. You could also say that I was conscious of multiple consciousness and experience in being true to the traditions that have fed my writing along the way, much of it being rooted in the aesthetics and traditions of writers of color.

It's interesting that you have asked me this question of multiplicity, because this is something I also observed in your beautiful new book, Boy with Flowers (Barrow Street Press, 2008). In your poem "Encounter," you write "And so the self is multiplied." In your poems, the speaker seems to be a mirror for exploring many possible selves. Your poems often start out in what is seemingly a very sure and concrete place, and then make a sudden transformation or turn once the reader is settling into a place of comfort. In your poem "Roll of Dimes," you end with the words "between all I held and wanted / to push away." Your poems seem to live mostly in that shifting space between, which I related to the ways they directly engage questions of shifting gender and identity. Was this your intention upon starting out to write these poems, or did the process happen more organically for you?
ES: Initially, I did not have an agenda or clear picture for Boy with Flowers. I did not know it would turn into a book concerning shifting identity and gender. However, something I have always been obsessed with perception, its transience, and the perceived gap between self and other, interior and exterior. I became interested in resisting, collapsing, and even inhabiting the space between these binaries. One of my favorite lines from an essay by Charles Simic speaks to this, "One writes because one has been touched by the yearning for and the despair of ever touching the Other." The Greek poet Yannis Ritsos also addresses something like this in his poem, "Maybe, Someday." He writes: "Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said, / so I'm not alone, so you're not alone", and then later in the poem, "But I'm going to insist on seeing and showing you, he said, / because if you too don't see, it will be as if I hadn't— / I'll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes— / and maybe someday, from a different direction, we'll meet" (translation by Edmund Keeley).

In many of the early drafts of my poems, I had been fumbling around with the same themes and images. In a way, I felt as though I was writing the same poem over and over again, until finally, something broke through. This breakthrough was around the same time I was figuring a lot out about myself, specifically my gender identity. Things that were once hidden from me, illegible and incomprehensible, were suddenly. It took writing these poems to see. And so, the primary transformation, I think, is one that has to do with perception itself, an ability to see. In the case of the poems from Boy with Flowers, the process of perceiving is closely tied to the bodily transformation I desired and began to undergo. The poems were a way for me to figure something out. One of my favorite poets and teachers, Donald Revell, often says, "write not to be understood, but to understand.” Of course, this notion seems to resonate with your lovely sentiment of "following the brush.”

As far as this discussion on form and even intention goes, I wonder if you could talk a bit about The Heart's Traffic's overall shape, especially its narrative arc since it is a novel in poems? Could you talk a bit about your process in ordering the poems and some of the strategies you used, for example the repetition of certain forms (like riddles) and titles that give authorship and authority in a direct way to Xiaomei (such as "Xiaomei's Song", "Xiaomei's Zuihitsu for Shapeshifters", "Xiaomei's Biography of Sparrow", etc.)? I was fascinated by this book’s sections, and subsections; it creates order while simultaneously maintaining a sense of fluidity by allowing the return of certain forms and titles to surge up at various times throughout the book. How do you see these patterns and decisions supporting the book's narrative? Or perhaps your interest was in resisting narrative, or certain narratives; I'm thinking particularly of the moment in the poem "Cruelty: a riddle" that begins, "So you think I'm going to write about…" and then the reader gets a kind of myth or stereotype of a mother, perhaps an immigrant mother. Likewise, dis-remembering and revisiting and revising memory are also themes in the book.
CC: I connect to that idea of writing to understand as well. I wrote the book in sections during different periods of time over a year, and had breakthroughs which allowed me new understandings of what I write about in the book. When I first started writing, I was just trying to get the story that was developing organically in my head onto the page. These early poems were more linear and dealt with Xiaomei's childhood. In terms of resisting certain narratives, I didn't want to tell the same story, or the story I felt I might be expected to tell. But I also felt I had to deal with the legacy of the communities I am part of and the impact of those histories on me. My first breakthrough was discovering the riddle structure which helped provide a way to tie this individual girl's story to a larger community and history. It also gave me an opportunity to re-visit a poetic tradition that was part of my growing up -- I remember learning Chinese riddles in Chinese school and having them told to me in long family car rides as a way to pass the time. But I didn't "remember" this until I read the riddles in Li Young Lee's poetic memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance. For me, incorporating these various types of writing (not just what I was taught in "poetry school," for instance) was a way of acknowledging the multitude of ways that I learned to be a writer. In fact, Xiaomei's story initially began as my desire to re-write this Chinese picture book I grew up with. The story is about a brother and sister who are very close and fight over stars one day. The brother runs away, drowns and becomes a firefly in the tale. I wanted to begin with what I was given, but make it my own story. In many ways, I see this book as a balance between something that Xiaomei inherits -- whether it is tradition, culture or story through family or the history of the Chinese who came before her in America -- and the space she creates to make her own way.

It was important to me that this book remain Xiaomei's story even as I played with the idea of incorporating multiple voices and perspectives into the book. Having said that, I have been interested in this idea of the public and private self, and how one can be publicly consumed through being "read." I saw Xiaomei as inhabiting multiple voices and perspectives that she presented to those around her, depending on the decisions she needed to make to survive. On one level, I saw these repetitions as an obsessive circling of the themes that I wanted to explore -- how this young immigrant girl grows herself up to live the fullest life she can possibly live. And, of course, on a more literal level, Xiaomei's process of growth involves dealing with the loss of her first love and childhood friend, Sparrow. On another level, I wanted to capture this fluid process of growing up and how Xiaomei re-visited her relationship to the communities around her, which necessarily led to re-evaluating her own identity and interpretation of her story.

Can you talk about your own process of re-visiting and shaping your poems into a first book? What I really like about your book is that I recognize these poems as a "family," yet each poem adds another layer to the overall narrative and talks back to (or perhaps revises) earlier poems. How did you view and revise these poems after your breakthrough? I was especially struck by the placement of your poem, "Transgendered Teens on D.C. Street, August 12, 2002." Since the poems leading up to this poem have felt so personal and intimate, this sudden reference to this outside and violent world disrupts our world as readers, as the murders must have disrupted the lives of those who knew and loved these teens. Then, the next poem shifts this subject material to a more personal and intimate tone again, but keeps this idea of remembering the dead in front of us as those who witness. Were you consciously hoping to shift perceptions of your readers as they move through the book in the way that you ordered your poems?
ES: I love your notion of the poems as a family. One of my earliest teachers, the poet Joy Manesiotis, taught me that once I began putting a book together, the poems would begin speaking to one another, and that I should listen to them. One thing I knew, as you mention in your last answer about writing about what you're expected to write about, is that I, too, wanted to avoid falling into what is almost a cliché now in queer and trans communities—the story that begins, "I always knew I was different…" and then ends with, "…now that I have the body close to what I've always wanted I am whole and complete, and living happily ever after." While I feel there is a great deal of value for many trans people in articulating early experiences (certainly there is for me) and projecting toward a (usually) normative future, I don't want the complexity of my particular experience to be reduced in any way, to become a generalization or representative of all trans experience, or for the sense that there is an end point to transition to be conveyed. For example, ending the book with the poem "Etymology", which parallels the speaker's childhood with his potential and delayed entry into an anatomical manhood (beginning hormone replacement therapy) was crucial. Though some of the initial poems are staged in childhood memories, these don't necessarily progress linearly. As you point out, they get returned to. Likewise, memory is not the past, but happens in the present. I continue to be interested in disruptions of normative or linear conceptions of time precisely because of our complicated relationship to our own individual histories. And while a gender transition is one of the main occurrences, and even a catalyst for many of the poems, it is not the only circumstance of the book.

A big part of figuring out the book's overall shape was through knowing what I didn't want (this seems to me to parallel the gender circumstance of knowing that the body one has been given is not quite right, but that an ideal body is simply that, an ideal) and then seeing what could remain, what evidence, what language could convey the essential, the generation of an experience.

I'm very glad you noticed the placement, disruption, and reintegration of "Transgendered Teens on D.C. Street, August 12, 2002". Even this poem's content, while related to trans issues, introduces another kind of violence, a more public one. I hope this leads to a greater sense of awareness and, perhaps even, implication. For me it was important to allow the poems to document a very private, and, as you say, intimate, experience, but to also stay anchored in an awareness of oppression constructed by the social world. Of course, this raises a lot of questions about the perceived boundaries between the public and the private, one's society and one's self, outside and inside, past and present, present and future, etc. Putting pressure on such boundaries and drawing out productive tensions continues to be important for me.

I realize my next question might be a generic one, but it seems especially important in light of the conversation we've been having about issues of the private and the public, and your literary and cultural legacy. In your last response, you mention the importance of both honoring the tradition of certain communities and also resisting accompanying expectations. In the notes to The Heart's Traffic, there is quite an extensive list of poets whose poems you've modeled some of yours after (from Terrance Hayes to Anna Akhmatova to Anne Carson). I wonder if you could talk about your influences? Are all of your influences other poets, are they typically writers of color, and are you also influenced by other art forms or disciplines? I ask because one of my favorite books as a pre-teen was Richard Wright's novel Black Boy. At that point in my life I did not know that I was queer, and while the issue of being black in this country before the Civil Rights Movement and being, however unknowingly, a genderqueer white kid in the 20th century are vastly different issues, I see in retrospect that I was drawn to the story of this outsider because I could relate, at the very least, to a sense of being other. Can you talk a bit about your own experience with influences, ones you've sought, or ones you've discovered in more accidental ways, and your sense of community, especially in light of your writing?
CC: I've always been a big reader, and I've tended to gravitate towards writers of color, because, as you mentioned, the story of the outsider was one that I could directly relate to. I remember discovering Maxine Hong King's Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts at 16 years old, never having read or been exposed to any other Asian American writer, and my world expanding at that moment. You mean, you can re-write these kinds of myths? You can write non-linearly? You can re-create a story about someone in your family who isn't talked about and is forgotten?

I absolutely hated poetry when I was younger. I think my own idea of poetry was limited to the one or two Robert Frost poems I was introduced to in high school; I just couldn't connect to the material and the way it was presented. It felt very distant from my life. I was re-introduced to poetry as a community organizer, hearing poetry like I was Born With Two Tongues or Ishle Yi Park performed for audiences enthusiastic about the spoken word. I remember being spellbound in the audience and inspired to write in a new way that I hadn't before.

There was also a community infrastructure that I was able to plug into in the Bay area, a history of Asian American culture and arts that was supported by longtime community institutions like Kearny Street Workshop. I took writing classes with poets such as Truong Tran and Maiana Minahal. I also was fortunate to discover Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, a writing workshop for writers of color, which led me to amazing teachers and poets like Ruth Forman, Suheir Hammad, and Elmaz Abinader. I discovered my love for poetry through the discovering the tradition of the spoken word in communities of color and being led by that to poetry on the page.

I see my writing practice since then as a slow process of committing to a spiritual practice of writing over time and broadening what I read and can grasp out of the world around me. Being in an MFA program has forced me to read outside of the texts I'm normally drawn to by habit, but it's also taken my work in wild directions that I hadn't expected, more experimental paths. Right now, I'm loving work by Pamela Lu, Claudia Rankine, and Cathy Park Hong, for instance, but also reading a lot of work that I would never have picked up before and learning from it all.

In terms of other art forms, I see myself as a dabbler and someone very interested in the creative process. I was involved in guerrilla theater in my community organizing days and made a short film so I'm very interested in crossing over thresholds and boundaries and learning from everything around you. I don't see poetry as a pristine art off by itself in a corner. I think that's how my creative mind operates -- it wants to learn and adapt and invent and see what's out there and what's possible.

I'm wondering if you could talk about where you're headed with your work after Boy with Flowers. Was there anything you learned from your first book that will influence the way you approach your next project, which I understand to be somewhat of a departure from Boy with Flowers?
ES: I'm currently working on a couple of projects. One is a series of lyric essays/poems interested in disrupting narratives of identity formation. It uses poetic language to question normative and static notions of identity and sexual difference to generate new possibilities. Formally the project collages different points-of-view, personae, and a broad range of discourses (the voices of institutions, such as medical and psychiatric regimes; the voices of queer night life; voices from history, and others). Rather than a single text with a beginning and end, I'm interested in how intersecting voices and styles can defamiliarize, amass, and salvage an existing language to open possibilities. In addition to this, I'm writing poems that I feel are heading in a new direction, but I think it's too early to tell where they are leading or to give a compact description of them. I'm increasingly interested in the tension between lyric and narrative, or at the very least, implied or suggested narrative(s). Likewise, I think it might be too early for me to tell how Boy with Flowers as a living entity in the world is affecting my writing. The only real hope I have is to continue to learn and evolve.

Ching-In, thank you so much again for the great conversation! I’d love to hear about what you have been working on since completing The Heart’s Traffic.
CC: Working on The Heart's Traffic opened me up to explore many possibilities with my writing. I've been particularly interested in multiple and fragmented narratives, similar to what you've said about moving away from a single text with clear boundaries. My longterm project is a multi-genre project concerned with the history of the coolies (indentured Asian workers sent all around the world in the 19th century), but also tells the story of genderqueer descendants in the 21st century and how they are impacted and deal with such received histories in a world we haven't yet imagined. I've also been working on other projects -- a series of flash fiction and prose poem fragments about a community at war living in the tunnels, and a fake poetic encyclopedia telling the origins of Asian poetic forms through fables about their founders -- but I'm constantly surprised by where my work takes me. Thank you, I've really enjoyed talking poetry and books with you, Ely!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761