Kristin Chang’s first chapbook—Past Lives, Future Bodies—can be most aptly compared to a butcher’s knife. With her precise, graceful verse, she hacks away at ideas ranging from feminism to sexuality to the Asian-American experience, reducing each to a sparse, unembellished poem that delivers a visceral gut-punch with each clean-cut line. Her poems explore the divide between past and present, between homeland and home, between self and family—and the crisis of identity that comes when you exist between the two.
Jennifer Zhou: What has your journey as a writer been like? What first drew you to poetry, and how have you evolved over the years?
Kristen Chang: I like to think that my journey is one of perpetual beginnings – I’m always trying to unlearn capitalist/Western ideas of “progress” and “discovery” and try to think of everything I write, everything I move toward, as a kind of coming home to myself. I’m also still struggling with calling myself a writer, because I often feel unworthy or don’t know how to see writing outside of constant, very visible production. I think I’m just trying to create a safe and healthy way to relate to myself and my work. What first drew me to poetry was probably the permission it gave me to disrupt language and reinvent it for myself – I think especially for immigrants and kids of immigrants, that permission to disrupt and disturb and reshape a language you’ve been alienated from is incredibly potent. In terms of how I’ve evolved, I love Jenny Zhang’s quote about writing toward your survival, and I like to think that I’m writing toward that and beyond it as well, that I can imagine my own safety and joy and intimacy within a poetic space.
JZ: One of my favourite things about your book is its title, Past Lives, Future Bodies. I find it so fitting for this collection, with its resonating themes of heritage, self, and the clash between the two. What did this title mean to you when you wrote these poems? In what ways does it encapsulate the message of the whole collection?
KC: I’m so glad you liked the title! I was a little unsure about it – I was afraid it was too clunky or inside-jokey, because my mom loves to attribute aspects of my personality to my past lives, and when I was younger it used to frustrate me. I thought she wasn’t acknowledging my individuality, etc. etc. – but now I appreciate being reminded of my past lives. I’m also obsessed with the implications of regeneration, that we all have “future bodies” that are waiting for us to inhabit them, that birth and death are synonymous and that the future and past aren’t separate entities – they’re constantly enjoined and lived within the body. Now that I’m grown up and have discarded by old fixation on “American individuality” (thank goodness, right?) this title was born from that desire to embody what is ancestral and unlived/unborn at the same time. I wanted the poems in my chapbook to feel both rooted and regenerative, a wound watered into a garden.
JZ: Speaking of themes, I was fascinated by how the idea of movement resonates through your work – whether it be movement away from your country, from your family, or from previous identities. How has your experience with movement, travel, and change inspired your work?
KC: There’s a poem in the chapbook that feels particularly close to me (“Yilan”) which sprung from an imaginary visit to Yilan – I was conflicted when writing it because I didn’t want to exoticize it, to capitalize off its traumas and its collective histories. But I also realized, halfway through, that I wasn’t really writing about a static place. I was writing about an embodied one. So the poem became more about the rhythms and migrations of stories, but also about the grief between the women in my family, those severances and losses that are birthed from movement. I feel like migration and mobility represent different things to me – there’s a kind of privileged mobility, where privilege and status allow you to move through the world with a certain ease and power and destruction, and then there’s migration, which demands sacrifice. There’s always a cost, emotionally and physically. It’s a kind of debt you pay off endlessly, generationally.
JZ: One of the most memorable aspects of this collection for me is your striking use of structure and form. I found it fascinating that many of the poems appear in couplets, while others, like ‘anchor baby’ and ‘The History of Sexuality’, are more unorthodox. What inspires you to experiment with structure? Do you think the form of a poem shapes its meaning, or is it the other way around?
KC: I think I tend to default to couplets, which is sometimes useful but usually not. Usually I’m just afraid to let my language loose on the page. The two poems you mentioned were really challenging for me in terms of form – especially the second one, which began as couplets before my wonderful teacher (Rachel Eliza Griffiths) mentioned that they felt restrictive. I realized that I had a lot of self-imposed borders and rules that I needed to move beyond. I think form and meaning interact and shape each other in really dynamic ways that are hard to define (it’s a chicken-or-the-egg kind of question), but for me, changing the form sometimes frees the poem and gives it a whole new body, a whole new trajectory. That’s how I felt when I changed “The history of sexuality” from couplets to a less containable form – it was really liberating and gave the intergenerational storyline more room to root itself, to become unruly, to grow beyond me and into its own shape.
JZ: I was struck by your ability to deal with extremely personal subject matter in a candid but still deeply powerful way. What do you find challenging about writing about your past? How does poetry help you engage with these elements of your personal history?
KC: Often when I finish a draft, I’ll look at the page and be like “what did I just write! Where did this come from?” I don’t consciously think about what stories or pasts or selves I’m going to find language for, and when I do, it’s like coming up for air. It’s always terrifying, but I also can’t stop. Every time I finish something I always think “I can’t ever do that again!” because of how charged and emotional the process can be, but not writing is even worse. I feel severed from my body – very displaced from myself – if I don’t at least try.
JZ: What is your advice for other emerging or aspiring authors? Any tips for seeking out inspiration or putting your ideas into words? Any recommended reading?
KC: I definitely have major, major impostor syndrome (like I get fairly regular anxiety dreams about it), but on a peer-to-peer level I just love to talk about what we’re all reading, and I especially love drawing inspiration from other genres and other art forms. I also just love reading poems out loud (usually not my own) and finding ways to embody what we read. I’ve actually been reading and writing prose lately, so some books I’ve loved are Ponti by Sharlene Teo and The Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contrera, everything by N.K. Jemisin, and of course Asian women have been releasing such incredible work lately and always (If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar and A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon).
JZ: Now that your debut chapbook has been published, what are your plans for the future? Any new projects we might look forward to?
KC: I mentioned that I’m starting to write prose (yikes!) so that’s where I am – I’m actually trying not to feel guilty about not writing poems, but I like to think that my prose is really just poetry in disguise/poetry in another body. I made a joke that I feel like I’m cheating on poetry, that I’m betraying something or myself, but I also feel at home in my current form and I’m learning to reframe genre distinctions in a way that isn’t reductive. I can’t ever get away from poetry – it feels like the marrow of me. I hope that every project I hurl myself into feels like it has the bones of a poem.
Jennifer Zhou is a student and writer currently living in Beijing. She owns four dogs, speaks three languages, and has lived on two continents.