CHING-IN CHEN: committed to writing as a regular practice
Ching-In Chen is a multi-genre, border-crossing writer and the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi/Red Hen Press, 2009). Chen is the child of Chinese Immigrants, and is a Kundiman and Lambda Fellow and a member of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundations writing communities. A community organizer, Chen has worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston, as well as helped organize the third national Asian Pacific American Spoken Word and Poetry Summit in Boston. Chen is also the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press, 2011) and Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press, 2009).
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. Their work has been published in anthologies and journals including Quarterly West, Chroma, Sinister Wisdom, Water~Stone Review, Diagram, Iron Horse Literary Review, and BorderSenses. Chen has won an Oscar Wilde honorable mention for “Two River Girls,” a poem from The Heart’s Traffic. Their poem-play “The Geisha Author Interviews,” also from The Heart’s Traffic was nominated for a John Cauble Short Play Award. Chen has also been awarded residencies and fellowships from Soul Mountain Retreat, Vermont Studio Center, the Fine Arts Work Center, the Paden Institute, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Millay Colony for the Arts.
I know Ching-In through a mutual community member, and through shared contacts at Red Hen Press. I have had the immense privilege of sharing the page with them in Glitter Tongue: Queer Love Poems, and hope to have further conversations with them about the incredibly necessary book they co-edited, The Revolution Starts at Home. Ching-In is an inspiration to me—a truly gifted, passionate, and politically-solid human being.
What books do you love and are currently reading?
This must be the hardest question for a writer to answer—I could probably go on for hours and hours. I just read a blog about a writer who hoards books and doesn’t read them. I’m like that—I have a huge stack of books I want to read, but haven’t yet. But my favorite books right now are: Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down, Larissa Lai’s salt fish girl. Since I’m currently writing about the 1889 anti-Chinese riot in Milwaukee, I’m reading books (and dissertations that haven’t been published yet) on the riot, the Chinese community in Milwaukee. The last two books I’ve recently read—and I thought both were fantastic!—were Daniel Borzutzky’s The Book of Interfering Bodies and Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. I’m on Goodreads to keep track of my book-reading mind and so I don’t have to keep it all in my head—so you can look for me there if you want to keep track of what I’m reading.
What writers do you admire?
Many! I admire:
- Douglas Kearney for the way that he layers performance in real time with performance on the page. Juan Felipe Herrera has talked about poetry as sculpture, dance and music all sharing the same space/page—and I think Doug’s work does this.
- Sharon Bridgforth for the way that she incorporates simultaneous and multiple truths. She’s another artist who layers it all and re-conceptualizes what the artform is.
- Juan Felipe Herrera for his fearlessnses and for his border-crossing everywhere in bookland!
- Kimiko Hahn for her messy, chaotic and jagged zuihitsu.
- Allison Adelle Hedge Coke just told me the story of how she saved Blood Run, a native American historical site, by reading her verse play, Blood Run, as testimony into the records of the meetings of the Game, Fish & Parks Commission in South Dakota, which led to their vote to preserve the site.
All of the writers I mentioned above! 🙂
Are there any hobbies or activities that you enjoy, outside of writing? Do you think that these activities help you with your writing?
If I’m not doing something writing-related, it tends to be community-based in some way, but this changes, depending on where I’m living and what kinds of communities there are. In the Bay Area I used to be part of Left Wing, the radical soccer team. In Boston I was part of an Asian women’s lion dance troupe. In Riverside I was part of a grassroots organization that organized to save the historical Chinatown site from development. In Milwaukee I’ve been playing flute with a radical marching band called Milwaukee Molotov Marchers, which formed out of the Wisconsin protests last year. Yes, much of my writing comes out of what I gather in other areas of my life.
What is your writing process? Do you mostly write from personal experience?
It’s really changed as I’ve grown as a writer. When I first started writing, it was very sporadic, and only “when the inspiration hit,” which could be once every seven months or if I were really upset by something and needed to process it. As I started getting more committed to my writing as a regular practice, I started trying to figure out how to make that happen on a more consistent basis. I realized, for me, that I need community (and expectation from others—aka guilt) to keep me going.
For the past three years or so I’ve kept writing by doing the daily Grind, a group that my friend Matthew Olzmann started with some of his friends in his low-residency MFA program to keep a writing community going. It’s pretty simple: you commit to write and produce something (anything) every day for a month. There’s no feedback involved; you just e-mail everyone in your group by midnight in your time zone. I write (or work on my writing, even if it’s revision) almost everyday because of this.
So my writing process is really one of trying to view it as practice and to keep it going as much as I’m able. Another book that I found helpful for thinking about this is One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher. When I first started writing, it was mostly from personal experience. Now, I think it’s still personal, but it may not necessarily be all things I experience firsthand. Partly, I think that when you write steadily and long-term, unless you are a very unusual person, you probably run out of interesting, risky things to say about yourself. You get bored with yourself as a subject. Everything I write is personal to me—but on different levels.
How did you get your start? Did you attend an MFA program or not? If not, how did you learn your craft?
I started putting myself in groups of other people trying to write. Early on, I went to community organizations which ran writing classes for community folk. I was lucky because I had some great beginning teachers like Maiana Minahal at Kearny Street Workshop who introduced me to writers of color, queer writers, immigrant writers. I developed my voice and aesthetics as a writer through communities such as Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation and Kundiman, a retreat for emerging Asian American poets. I got an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California at Riverside.
However, I’m grateful that I did my MFA only after taking a shitload of community classes and workshops—because I think it was important that I developed a strong sense of who I was as a writer and what was important to me as a writer before I entered the program. It was also important that I knew that there were lots of writers of color, queer/trans writers and other writers who tend to be left out of the canon—because I knew where to look and supplement what wasn’t being taught to me in class. And the actual process of applying to MFA programs was how I felt I made my first big leap to the next level as a writer because I read the work of all the faculty in the programs I applied to and considered applying to.
What this meant is that I necessarily read writers I had never heard of, writers that I would never have read otherwise, that I may have dismissed or been less interested in. And this is when aesthetics really started to develop, even before I stepped forth into any MFA classroom. It also helped me learn that reading is a big part of my writing education, and that’s actually something I can do on my own, regardless of where I am, if I’m in school or not. The benefit of being in school is that you’re more readily exposed to (and forced to read) writers you may have never heard of—but you can also do this on your own. While in my program, what I learned from that experience was to see what I could learn from each teacher (both in terms of strengths and weaknesses), even if I hated their work or thought that I might not want to hang out with them in real life. Everyone had something to teach me, pushed me in some way down the path of writing.
How has your career evolved over time?
I have gotten a lot more opportunities (for readings, to participate in various events and projects) because of my book. But I was talking to a good friend who just had a book come out—we were talking about how our lives didn’t completely transform over night. We still pretty much feel the same—we’re trying to write, trying to reach the next level, trying to get what we mean to come out in some semblance on the paper, trying to read more, connect with other writers, make money so we can write, etc. I think the difference for me is my commitment to the writing path—I feel more invested now than I did ten years ago. I think also as I’ve grown more and more comfortable with my own sense of voice and aesthetics, it’s actually made me more open to things I wouldn’t have been as open to in the past—so I’ve learned from that too.
Did you have a mentor—how valuable was that? How did the relationship come to be?
I’ve always had different folks in my life who taught me different kinds of things for a period of time, but I probably didn’t have someone consistent until I worked with Eloise Klein Healy on The Heart’s Traffic. This felt different in that I felt that she was invested in my writing career over a long term. Now, I feel as if I’ve met another mentor, Brenda Cárdenas, who is my adviser in the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She’s one of the main reasons I came to UWM to study—I wanted to study closely with another writer of color. One thing I really admire about Brenda is her dedication to activism while being a kick-ass teacher and writer simultaneously.
What’s your daily working method? How much time do you spend writing each day and how do you make that happen?
I try to do the morning pages every day if I’m able (though sometimes, when I’m really busy, I don’t get to them until later in the day). I can usually tell when things aren’t very balanced because I’m skipping them a lot or not doing them. It’s a good gauge for me of when I need to ground or center myself. I usually make work through the Grind—and I usually try to channel my projects and what I need to get done (whether for school, workshop, to revise a piece for submission) through that structure.
In my regular life, I probably spend about ½ hour doing morning pages and then ½ hour Grinding (½ the time making new work and ½ the time revising) daily, sometimes more if I’m on deadline or have a big project I’m working toward. Deadlines and goals help, as well as larger projects. Being in school has helped with that, but if I’m not in school, I find something to apply to—some deadline to work toward. Buddies also help—so I like making writing dates with friends who I know are trying to do creative work. It doesn’t even have to be someone who is a writer; I’ve had two filmmaker creative friends who I’ve had this kind of ongoing set-up with.
Also, this year, I was invited by a fellow Macondista to be part of a creative goals setting group. It’s actually similar to the Grind—we show up (or try to show up) every Monday and e-mail everyone in the group our creative goals for the week and then take stock of whether or not we met our goals for the week previous. It helps me organize my thoughts in terms of what needs to get done. I also try periodically to have some concentrated time to write—either through going to a writing workshop or a writing residency if it’s possible. And I’ve discovered, especially if I’m creating new work daily, that I need to replenish by inputting lots of creative material. Usually this means reading, but could also mean performance, going to see visual art, film, etc.
How do you balance work and life?
This is something I’m obsessed with, but I’m not sure I achieve balance very well. I once heard Carolyn Forché talk about balance as a myth and that this is actually not something she tries to achieve. I have figured out that it’s important to fight for the space to take good care of myself—similar to the way that I used to fight for writing time. So I try to practice—eating well and exercising, those being times that I see as me-time, but it doesn’t always happen. Just like my morning pages don’t always happen. My big battle now is sleep since I’m so used to always running a sleep deficit. It’s hard to change old patterns, but it helps to think of it—as I think of my writing—as one continuous practice that I return to over and over again.
Do you teach? If so, do you feel it helps you to be a better writer, or is it a necessary evil?
Yes and no, meaning most of my income right now comes from my work as a Teaching Assistant (I actually have a course release because I’m currently Managing Editor of cream city review so you could say half teaching/half editing pays my way), which in a way is coming from my writing. But I don’t live off getting paid directly for my writing and I never have. Before coming back to school I worked in non-profits and always did my writing as a side gig. I do teach, and I really like teaching. It helps me to know my shit well and introduces me to new writers. I think it helps me become a better writer in the way that reading a lot and being an editor helps me become a better writer.
Based on your background, what advice do you have for me, as a young poet in an MFA program?
Get involved in multiple writing communities and volunteer to organize readings, work on journals, etc. A lot of the opportunities I received came from some of these networks that I didn’t realize I was creating for myself (and I wasn’t involved for that reason), but I realized that’s actually the way it works for a lot of those who are always taught and canonized. And I realized that we can make our own networks. And, for that matter, I always think about which writers I can expose to my students (I usually try to go for writers that I don’t think they would have been exposed to or who are less well-known) and who I can bring along with me. Maybe this is why I like collaborative writing so much—so I don’t have to be on the journey alone.
July Westhale is a writer, femme shark, activist, and archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She writes poems, long curly letters, academic articles, art criticism, travel essays, interviews, book reviews, & the occasional terrible short story. She does not normally wear blazers, or drink lattes. She was recently named a 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry for LLF’s Emerging LGBT Voices Writing Residency, an Artist in Residence at Dairy Hollow Writers Colony, a runner up in the Femme Bot & Arsenic Chapbook competition & an indentured servant atCopper Canyon Press. University of Wisconsin at Madison’s lit journal Women in REDzine just named her one of their “top 10 inspiring political poets of 2011.”