Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jennifer Chang

Jennifer Chang’s first book The History of Anonymity was an inaugural selection of the VQR Poetry Series and was published in 2008 by University of Georgia Press. She has received recent fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and new poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, and A Public Space. A Ph.D. candidate in English at UVA, she is writing a dissertation on race and the modernist pastoral.


I will do everything you tell me, Mother.
I will charm three gold hairs
from the demon's head.
I will choke the mouse that gnaws
an apple tree's roots and keep its skin
for a glove. To the wolf, I will be
pretty and kind, and curtsy
his crossing of my path.

The forest, vocal
even in its somber tread, rages.
A slope ends in a pit of foxes
drunk on rotten brambles of berries,
and the raccoons ransack
a rabbit's unmasked hole.
What do they find but a winter's heap
of droppings? A stolen nest, the cracked shell

of another creature's child.
I imagine this is the rabbit way,
and I will not stray, Mother,
into the forest's thick,
where the trees meet the dark,
though I have known misgivings
of light as a hot hand that flickers
against my neck. The path ends

at a river I must cross. I will wait
for the ferryman
to motion me through. Into the waves,
he etches with his oar
a new story: a silent girl runs away,
a silent girl is never safe.
I will take his oar in my hand. I will learn
the boat's rocking and bring myself back

and forth. To be good
is the hurricane of caution.
I will know indecision's rowing,
the water I lap into my lap
as he shakes his withered head.
Behind me is the forest. Before me
the field, a loose run of grass. I stay
in the river, Mother, I study escape.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

My husband, who is also a poet, and I were living in a small one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. I had just come home from The MacDowell Colony, where I worked in a bark-covered cottage; the cottage was bigger than our apartment and was surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods. I had been there from April to May 2002. Soon after, I wrote the poem partly because I wanted to return to that sanctuary of quiet and expansion. The poem also continued many of the preoccupations (fairy tales and the enigmas of childhood and of nature) I had identified and refined during my residency. I remember beginning with the title, a strategy I practiced often back then because it often helped to launch me into a poetic space. I suppose I associated “obedience” with the confinement of our small apartment and “lying” with the freedom of imaginative roaming and the forest. But that sounds like there was much more intentionality in the process; in truth, I missed writing intensively, without the interruptions of daily life, and I was, as I often am, longing for poems and hoping that this could be a poem that would “take.”

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Seven or eight. I had trouble figuring out the stanzaic form. It was one stanza and then it was all different stanza lengths. As I worked on it, I recognized that the logic of the poem, the circularity and indecisiveness of the speaker’s thinking, sort of resembled the sestina, so I tried to invoke the sestina structurally. I organized the next draft into six sestets and a tercet. I was thinking of the revision process that Rita Dove went through in completing her great poem “Parsley.” I’m sure no one thinks “sestina” or “Parsley” when they read “Obedience,” but I’ve learned a lot about craft from working in form and reading that poem and its drafts. The stanzaic pattern of the sestina didn’t work and I ultimately settled on five octaves. Such symmetry, I think, heightens the tension by presenting an orderliness that neither the speaker nor her environment expresses. The initial writing and revision took a couple weeks and months later I further revised the first two stanzas to make their music more fluid. When it was first accepted for publication, I did more cuts to quicken the poem’s pace. I’m still not happy with the first two stanzas.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Yes. But I rarely reach inspiration without steady, ongoing effort. I’ll admit that when I began writing this poem I felt no inspiration whatsoever and as I scribbled out the forest scene I suppose I “received” the phrase “to be good is the hurricane of caution.” I persisted in completing this poem mostly because I was curious about what I could construct from that phrase and where it would take me.

Also, the poem was “received” in a more literal sense. I recently re-read “Little Red-Riding Hood” and discovered that I unwittingly lifted the phrase “I will do everything you tell me, Mother” from that tale. The exact phrase. It was absolutely unintentional. That’s not inspiration so much as the frequency I must have picked up while writing “Obedience.” (Or plain theft!) I was thinking of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, though the poem is not based on any of these tales. It’s more a rendering of the psychological atmosphere I perceived in fairy tales I’d been reading at the time.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I’d submitted the poem four times in 2003 and it was accepted in April 2004 by VQR, where the poem appeared over a year later. I actually thought it was a weak poem and had left it out of manuscript for a long time, but the editor really liked it and then it was my first poem to appear on Poetry Daily, who then selected it for their print anthology. And then in 2007 Henry Holt reprinted it in an English textbook for middle school students. And then you interviewed me about it. Which goes to show that a writer is not always the best reader of her own work. When I was sitting down with the final copyedits, my husband told me that I had to put the poem back in. I’m glad I listened to him.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

About six months. I don’t have any rules, but I tend to wait a month or so before submitting a poem. I’m terrified of embarrassing myself, so I like to be sure before I entertain the possibility of giving any poem a public record.

Is this a narrative poem?

This is a lyric poem. However, I abide by the conception of lyric as the displacement of narrative and this lyric poem displaces narrative less rigorously than other poems in The History of Anonymity.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

In the spring and summer of 2002 I remember reading quite intensely Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty and Hybrids of Ghosts and Plants, Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, and Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters.

I can’t say these were very influential to “Obedience” in particular, but I was reading them repeatedly while working on The History of Anonymity. Other persistent influences during that time were Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, God and Plainwater, Simone Weil’s Gravity & Grace, Charles Wright, Sylvia Plath’s Colossus and Ariel, Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris and Meadowlands, and, of course, Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Current influences are T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, John Donne, the letters of Heloise and Abelard, Franz Kafka’s diaries, Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Dorothy Wordsworth’s Alfoxden Journal, Fanny Howe’s Gone and The Wedding Dress, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, and Elizabeth Willis’s Meteoric Flowers. These are the writers and texts directly affecting my writing right now.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Other solitudes and liars. Seriously, I don’t have any particular audience in mind, though I do sincerely hope that the poems find their appropriate audience, that they speak to individuals who need to be spoken to, and that they have the capacity to engage with someone intimately and profoundly. If I could identify who these people are, I wouldn’t need to write poems as much as I do. I’d just invite them over for a glass of wine and engage with them in person.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I vaguely remember showing this and another poem to a friend in San Francisco and I remember he didn’t say a word about it. (Maybe that’s why I thought it was weak!) I do have a couple good friends, with whom I share work, and while I was living in New York I was part of a short-lived yet vigorous writing circle that consisted of dear poet friends who still inspire me. We met three or four times. I have a brilliant friend whose advice I trust completely, but I hadn’t met her yet when I wrote “Obedience.” And my husband is an exceptional reader, though most days we’d rather go out for dinner than pore over each others’ poem drafts.

What is American about this poem?

I love this question—thank you for asking it. I accept many labels for my poems and my person, but I resist the confinement of categorization. Consequently, I have a vast and murky definition of “American.” I know I’m American, but, other than the fact that I was born here, I don’t know what makes me American. In regards to the poem, I’d say it is American because questioning the stability of place leads the speaker to question the stability of identity. Is that too vast and murky?

NOTE: Some questions have been adapted from Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process, edited by Alberta T. Turner (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1977).


  1. Lovely poem and discussion. Thank you.

  2. Actually, it was Holt Rinehart and Winston who published it in a high school textbook.

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