March 2012 Archives

On So Much Fire: A Conversation with Feng Sun Chen

by J. Fossenbell


Feng Sun Chen is in her second year in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. She is a poet, though the tag itself isn't entirely a comfortable one for her. Her second chapbook, blud, has come out recently from Spork Press, and her first full-length book of poetry, Butcher's Tree, has been published by Black Ocean.

JF: I notice both of these books seem to poke their fingers into mythology and biology, into bodily fluids and the growth of things, into negative spaces. If someone were to torture you into describing the poems in each book, what would you tell them?

FSC: I'm influenced by mythology (the supernatural), interiors, and biology. Mythology and storytelling are interesting to me because their subjects often only exist as words or concepts in relation to other words/concepts. My life as an imported good from China has been sustained by a steady stream of media that has initiated me into a world of things and beings that I know, understand, and love without ever having touched or seen--including non-mythological (technically) animals and cosmic forces. For this reason, things like animals can exist inside of me as easily as outside. Borders of the body are suspended in a soup of noodles surrounded by fishballs.

I remember feeling a lot of hunger and emptiness while writing the poems in Butcher's Tree. It follows that many of the poems are about hollowing things out, or coring them, like the identities of mythological figures and lovers. What gets mythologized? And what are the mythologies of science? When we think of ourselves and our bodies, we always talk very biologically about certain things. I feel like everyone has double consciousness because materialism is secular and the spiritual is contended but everyone wants purpose. I'm not sure they're that different. To me, they are not. What makes matter matter and something not matter? Why must we have purpose? Meaning-making is hard to understand from the inside. But when I'm actually writing, I don't think about anything.

So, I just feel like I'm on drugs all the time and can't think straight. The only thing I can say is that the poems are about feelings, mostly ugly ones, but dressed differently. blud, for example, is full of rage and pus because I was really sick at the time and had to get some freakishly painful surgery without anesthetic. I was obsessed with different things at the time, like fear of pregnancy and the movie Antichrist. With BT, I was obsessed with the monstrosity of desire and being a girl or woman, which is like trying to be a myth. I have a lot of rage that I cannot access, so I have to draw it.

But the forms and voices are clearly distinct; how would you characterize the differences between the two projects? Does one predate the other?

blud was written long after BT, and it was written much more quickly in a shorter span of time, mostly clustered around my sickness, which was one of the worst things to happen to me in my otherwise mediocrely starry life. Still, some of the themes are the same, like the sensation of unbearable hunger. blud was much more pained, obviously, and more dirty and malformed. The first poem there sets up the body as place, as something that can be populated and can have weather. It's a little different than the slow dissection in BT. The two deal with entropy very differently. blud is held together by a sustained narrative, whereas the entropy in BT is tightly bound up by each poem so that they seem formal.

Did you have in mind a title or unifying concept for either book as you were writing poems? Or did that come later?

For BT, that came later. I had lots of trouble with the title, but the unifying concepts were always just whatever I swelled in at the time. My editors actually helped me come up with the title for that one. blud was different. I had the word blud, that came first, and my pus, and the world, and all leaking all the time, and so it was all about that. The rhythm reflected the qualities of the content.

butcher's tree.jpgWhat is it that usually triggers the sprouting of an individual poem for you?

Usually, the sounds of words and the texture of the line. I'm a feeler, so I feel around. I don't find language or meaning very stable, so if I don't have a narrative thing going on, the poem is going to be very texture oriented. Feelings are textural to me.

In the final section of the poem "Concerning Nothing" from Butcher's Tree, the speaker says "I don't believe in what I mean" and, at the end of the poem, "I mean to believe. I miss." Is this how you feel about your poetry, or poetry at large, or am I reading too much into it? What, if anything, does your poetry believe in?

I think that this is mostly about the dimness I feel in my mind, and the very privileged difficulty I have with being an optimist because I don't have the powers I would like in order to fix the world, which is on so much fire. And I do feel that way about poetry. I miss it, and I also have bad aim. I also feel like I have an autoimmune disorder in regards to the rhetoric of poetry... can't seem to accept what's inside.

Say a few words about influence. Bands, books, characters? Fine cheeses, favorite national forests? What were some of the formative ingredients that got grated into the making of these poems?

I like Fever Ray a lot. She has a deep rumbly feminine well of a soul and sees far without trying to. Other ingredients include my fragmented memories and relationships with Wukong, Beowulf & Grendel, Sylvia Plath, Kafka, etc. Gregor Samsa is probably my favorite character.

I'm a very isolated person, so I treat words like things and I wonder about the way we think about feelings like they are actual things, and how thoughts are feelings, a very bad map at least in my case (I'm not that smart) and how people want things or think they want things, wanting being a feeling, and being disappointed at the world, and how being alive is very mysterious and mind blowing. Less navel-gazingly, now I'm interested in ecology and video games as art form. I'd also like to read more about systems and computer science.

When I read these poems, I occasionally imagine the writer being a female gnome squatting in a hollowed-out tree. Is this accurate? If not, can you dispel the myth by sharing something about when and how and where you write, and what form you take while doing it?

Yes, I am a female gnome and I like to squat in trees or holes, but I have a computer and that is how I write. I like the feeling of tapping with my fingers, that each letter touches a finger.

ChenBlud.jpgBoth books have really gorgeous, striking covers. Where did Josh Wallis, the Butcher's Tree cover artist come from? I know you're a drawer; did you draw the octopus on the cover of blud?

Josh Wallis is a friend of Janaka Stucky's I think. I'm not sure, but he's a great designer, and so is Janaka himself. I feel so lucky! I did not draw the octopus. Drew Burk did. He is also awesome.

How did you find your publishers? Did it take long? For the sake of people who love stories of hard-won victory (like me), were there rejections along the way?

I had tons of rejections. Everywhere I went, I was rejected, except for Black Ocean, which felt like a freak accident. Unfortunately I don't have a way of explaining it except that someone there felt something when they read my poems. I think it was just the right place at the right time. With chapbooks, I like to send to smaller or newer presses, particularly the ones that like unusual or experimental stuff.

What have you learned about working with a publisher on a book. Do you have any advice for folks trying to get a book or chapbook published?

When doing revisions for a publisher, be sure to track everything that changes, and make sure that the editors know that you are doing it. I had issues with making too many changes when I was working with BO. As far as publishing goes, like others say, it's important to look for presses that have a similar personality/style to yours, and to try to submit to many many places. Read widely and allow yourself to be influenced by different writers, including stuff outside your genre. I find that I learn best from the things I dislike, so it's important to contemplate why you dislike something without being dismissive. That was a digression. Finally, talk to other writers around you and online. Sometimes that's the way you discover new presses and journals and the ones that will support you. The world of poetry is vast and I have no doubt that there is a place for every writer to sprout.

Visit Chen's blog
blud from Spork Press
Butcher's Tree from Black Ocean Press

Magical, Crazy Poetry: An Interview with Charles Baxter

by Carrie Lorig

Charles Baxter is the author of five published novels, five collections of short stories, three books of poetry, and two essay collections. His most recent story collection, Gryphon, was published in 2011 by Random House. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.

thumbBaxterCharles.jpgWhat is the difference between sitting down to write a poem and sitting down to write anything else? Can you describe the state of mind?

The state of mind that's employed/involved in writing a poem is running at higher RPMs than the state of mind that's employed/involved in writing a novel, as a rule. A poet friend of mine compared writing a novel to laying down bricks and mortar. It's slow work and requires patience. Whereas you can write a great poem in half an hour, if your mind is working fast enough. You can't write a great novel or even a great short story in half an hour. It's not possible.

What are the sparks that usually make a poem?

Magical, crazy, sexy, and brilliant associations of thought that are true. They have to be true, or no one cares.

How would you describe your poetry? What is it made of?

I can't describe my poetry, and I don't think any poet should try to describe his or her work unless he or she is under duress or torture. Self-consciousness is the death of spontaneity.

What does the poem do that fiction can't, for a reader? I'm also tempted to ask, what does fiction do that poetry can't? The spaces between are interesting.

Stuart Dybek has said that prose can do anything that poetry can do except for the mind-messes created by line-breaks. But obviously poetry relies on association and compression in a way that prose fiction doesn't always. If you compress everything and concentrate it in fiction, the fiction becomes exhausting to read, and sterile.

What poets or poetry have you been interested in lately? Has that changed over the years?

It's harder for me to read poets who are much younger than I am because I don't always know what they're talking about, or I don't feel that way anymore about my experiences, the way I once did. But I try to read a book of poems every two weeks or so. I won't name names. I try to read everybody, but of course I fail.

What do you do when a poem feels frozen?

I try to figure out what's wrong with it. I get drunk. I read it aloud. I make it sexier or crazier. Frozen = timid or cowardly or scared.

Can you talk a little bit about what you see contemporary poetry doing these days? What is working about it? What isn't?

This is an invitation to an over-generalization. My temptation is to say that American poetry is getting too abstract and self-centered. I don't see enough of the world outside of language in contemporary American poetry. You could get a lot of contemporary American poetry by flipping the dial on late-night radio. Modern history, our history, needs its poetry, just as contemporary life needs legible poetry, and the wild associations that can see metaphorically what's going on at the Mall of America and the candidacy of Rick Santorum. But I would never, ever, tell poets what they should write about.

Visit his website.

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