Criticism & Features




The History of Anonymity, University of Georgia Press

Jennifer Chang’s poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Kenyon Review, New England Review and Boston Review. She co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a non-profit organization that promotes Asian American poetry.

The poem “This Corner of the Western World” opens with the lines, “Dark thing,/ make a myth of yourself,” which reads like the key to the book as it constructs elliptical narratives connected to invented texts (like “The History of Anonymity”), imagined places (like the town of Unction) and the blurry figures of Father, Mother, Sister, Brother—everything spinning around a speaker who is making sense of a past and a troubled psyche. The result is a strange and dazzling order to the chaos of language and information that is sometimes disorienting and ambiguous. And yet, by the end, plenty has been revealed about this speaker whose identity remains mostly a mystery. Can you discuss how and why you decided on this challenging method of “history-telling”? Why did you feel it was the most effective way to write this particular project?

For a long time, I was resistant to including the title poem in the book because I didn’t understand how it fit in with either the shorter lyrics or the long sequence “A Move to Unction” that ends the book.  All the speakers of the poems were different in my head, and I was worried that readers would either interpret the poems as autobiographical or read the book as an extended narrative (as a “history”).  As a scholar, I don’t trust autobiography, and as a lyric poet, I don’t trust narrative: both enforce a coherence that reveals more about the writer’s motives at the moment rather than the life or story being told.  What I do trust is mystery; I trust confusion.  That sounds strange, I know, but I love myths and fairy tales because when I first read them I had no idea where I was or what I was feeling (fear or delight?).  I tell my students whenever I introduce a difficult text, a text that mystifies or confuses, the reader becomes as important as the writer because she too must negotiate language and decide how to navigate her way through the page.  The reader, in a sense, participates in the composition process.  When reading myths and fairy tales, I entered emotional landscapes, encountered archetypes rather than characters, and this somehow made the experiences more true, and more mine, even though we all know women can’t turn into trees and grandmothers can’t be devoured by wolves.  I think once I articulated all this to myself, I was able to relinquish my worries about autobiography and narrative.  And, yes, history!

“This Corner of the Western World” was one of the last poems I wrote for the book, when I began to recognize that the poems in congress gestured toward certain emotional and quasi-narrative procedures.  My husband, the poet Aaron Baker, also pointed out that all my speakers are disembodied, talking ghosts, and then one day I read my friend Joseph Legaspi’s poems, which are profoundly bodied and sensual, and I don’t know if I got excited or jealous, but I suddenly very much wanted to write a sexy poem too!  So, you’re right to read the poem as a key of sorts; it provides one of the book’s rare bodies, and it arose in a moment of greater self- and book-awareness.

You approach the use of white space with plenty of ingenuity and creativity in many of the pieces in this book. Who were some of the poets that inspired this technique and why did you find it an appropriate one for The History of Anonymity? How do you determine which poems are structured with the conventional stanza and which benefit from the floating lines on white space?

Charles Wright was my teacher and mentor, and his poems have always been very important to me, especially “Homage to Paul Cezanne” and the poems in Chickamauga and Black Zodiac.  What I admire most about his use of white space and drop/floating lines is how instrumental they are to his rhythm.  He wanders away from the left margin or fragments a poem with section breaks not simply for the visual impact but because the poem’s music requires a pause, a wordlessness.  And there’s a metrical sense to this.

Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” and “The Life of Towns” were very important to me as I was writing The History of Anonymity.  Though “The Glass Essay” employs a regular stanzaic pattern, as a 20+ pages lyric sequence, the white space surrounding the stanzas and sections come to represent an important negative space: it illustrates both the wintry moor on which the speaker wanders and the emotional desolation (and distances) she recounts.  “The Life of Towns” is composed of several very short lyrics portraying a town (“Lear Town,” “Sylvia Town,” etc.), and you have to contrast their smallness to the expansiveness of Carson’s accumulation of them. 

Unlike Charles Wright, Carson emphasizes the visual performance of white space, but her use of white space also heightens silence, as if between each town lyric the reader must traverse empty fields.  I want my own white spaces to do this, to sound both a wordless music and a silence, to travel both temporal and spatial distances. 

I also think of certain songs, like Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” or Yo La Tengo’s “Stockholm Syndrome,” in both of which the singing stops but the music keeps playing, and the emotional energy just surges.  And, of course, this happens in every song in Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, an album better than most books of poems. 

At the same time, I don’t like relying too much on white space because lineation (as a measure of rhythm and thus time) is central to my poetic practice.  A floating line must contribute to the poem’s music, but it also diffuses the tensions that regular stanzas and lineation can produce.  Often, when I use a couplet or tercets, it’s because I’m focusing attention on words and lines that will invoke a more concentrated emotional effect.  For me, a floating line tends to be more meditative, more thought than feeling, though of course I don’t follow this as a rule.  And often, I’ll go through a phase of writing poems only in quatrains (because I want to “figure it out”), and then I’ll rebel against myself with a poem that roams every inch of the page.  This dialectic between the stanza and page happened a bit in the process of writing “The History of Anonymity,” and I think that ultimately this poem’s form reflects not so much my habits as a writer but the philosophical conflict between the poem’s two voices.

Besides being a poet, you are also an advocate for other emerging Asian American poets through Kundiman, which has become an invaluable resource for young writers. How has this community nurtured and changed the ways you approach writing and your role as an artist in the literary community at large? 

In one of my first rejection letters, the editor suggested that I write closer to my heritage, and it is a suggestion I still get occasionally get.  I am a NJ-born Chinese-American, the daughter of a Jane Austen-loving woman and Ray Charles-listening man, granddaughter of a philosophy professor who read German poetry with pleasure.  Yesterday, I lead my students in a discussion on social authority and “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”  Last week, my husband grilled steaks for us in our backyard in Charlottesville, VA, which is only a couple of miles from Monticello.  Each of these details points towards a heritage far more complex than my last name, and yet a heritage that belongs to me as much as my last name.  When I met Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi (the founders of Kundiman), I struggled with the very narrow conception of authenticity that’s too often forced onto ethnic-American writers.  Does subject matter define ethnicity?  Does ethnicity define subject matter?  Kundiman didn’t change my writing, but it did strengthen (and raise the volume) of my response to these questions, which has always been “No.”  Through Kundiman, I’ve met many writers who agree and disagree with me, and it has been tremendously rewarding that we all welcome each other and share in the work of community.  I think it’s essential for artists to participate in and contribute to their various communities (and we all belong to more than one).  I may work in isolation, but for the pleasures of art and the products of culture to flourish we need each other. That’s the responsibility of society, but it is especially the responsibility of artists. 

(Author Photo: Simon Weaver)