This Saturday, August 3rd, the Library of Congress will host the second day of the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival. In anticipation of the Library’s full day of festival programming, Phoebe Coleman of the Library of Congress’s Asian American Association asked poet Jennifer Chang a few questions. Chang will deliver a short talk and participate in a conversation with poet Cathy Park Hong as part of a “Secret Histories: Remembering Lost Voices” session at 11:30 AM on Saturday.
The last time you participated in a Library event was for the Asian American Literature Today: Kundiman Spotlight in 2016. How does it feel returning for the Asian American Literature Festival? What are you looking forward to?
It’s a thrill to return to the library for the Asian American Literature Festival and especially for the “Secret Histories.” Two years ago, I shared an anecdote with Lawrence-Minh Davis (of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center) and Robert Casper (of the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center) about trying to find an expatriated Asian American poet in Dublin, and that led to a conversation about the stealth yet powerful influences on arts and culture that get overlooked or forgotten. From that, this collection of four talks, a kind of show-and-tell disguised as a lecture/reading, came into fruition. I’m humbled to be one of the four mid-career poets sharing a secret history (of the poet Wong May, born in China and educated in the United States), and I’m even more humbled to see up close how arts administrators bring such fantastical ideas to life.
I’m looking forward to learning about the other “Secret Histories” from Kazim Ali, Ching-In Chen, and Cathy Park Hong, as well as watching Sally Wen Mao perform as Anime Wong, attending Sarah Gambito’s Dinner Party Salon for her new book Loves You, and getting dolled up with my older son for the Asian American Literary Review Nail Salon. How is a literature festival that also includes secret-sharing, food, and manicures not the greatest (and most Asian American) festival ever?
The theme of this year’s Asian American Literature Festival is “Care + Caregiving.” What about this theme is particularly important to you when thinking about Asian American literature?
I first began to write because I had no one to talk to and no world in which I felt truly at home. I don’t know that writing gives me either exactly, but I do know that the twin desires to connect to others and to find a safe space comprise a loneliness, a vulnerability, that ought to be attended to. The theme “Care + Caregiving” acknowledges this loneliness, honors it, making clear that to be cared for, to be given care, one needs to be seen. This is a weekend when we Asian American writers will see each other and be seen, making connections and creating spaces that might make us a little less lonely.
Can you give our readers a sneak peek of what to expect during your “Secret Histories: Remembering Lost Voices” session at the festival on Saturday?
When I discussed these secret histories with Kazim, Ching-In, and Cathy, I tried to be very respectful of their conception of “secret” because that conception reflected the power these writers have had on their own art. I knew, for me, that my secret history is very personal, not for the autobiographical elements that come up but the feelings that Wong May stirs up in me and my sense of who I am and want to be as a poet. I didn’t want to over-direct my fellow speakers: I trusted their instincts—as thinkers, as writers, as citizens—to uncover something important for the festival audience and, more broadly, for Asian American letters. As with the exposure of any secret, I expect the audience will be surprised, perhaps unsettled, and hopefully moved.
Are there trends that you see in contemporary Asian American poetry today? What excites you?
I just wrote a very long chapter essay about this in the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia for Asian American Literature and Culture! One thing that excites me about Asian American poetry is its inherent sociality, which is vexed and yet absolutely necessary. We are in conversation with each other, but we are also in conversation with influences that exclude us (the Western canon), influences from which we are estranged, and interlocutors who might not entirely understand us because of language or cultural and generational differences (our families and readers and critics who are predominantly white). This is a conversation that insinuates itself into our language and form and, in the process, often highlights the politics of poetic conventions like voice, metaphor, and prosody. What results is a poetry that is incredibly complex, that begs for repeated reading, and that invites everyone to be more empathetic and capacious in their interpretive approaches. Asian American poetry challenges us to read with an openness the vast constellation of histories and subjectivities that any one poem, word, or voice arises out of. Maybe this isn’t a trend exactly, but it’s a meaningful pressure to, through reading, engage with otherness with greater intentionality and curiosity and, in the writing, I’m seeing innovations that are subtle in execution but enormous in reach.
You’re the author of two poetry collections. What are you interested in investigating in your own work?
I want words to behave like representational art, but I think like an abstract painter. Which is to say, I am torn by two questions: on the one hand, why can’t words be more truthful, more precise, and more life-like; on the other hand, how can what I feel and think ever be expressible in language. My poems struggle against this antagonism and somehow live in it. Right now, I’m writing about trees, neighbors, and fathers, but I’m ultimately doing what I did in my first two books, doubting every word I set down, trying to throttle the truth out of these pages.
Asian American Literature Festival. Saturday, August 3, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m in LJ-119, Library of Congress Jefferson Building. Free tickets recommended. Full festival schedule available here. Co-sponsored by the Library of Congress Asian Division and Asian American Association. Presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Poetry Foundation.