Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collection Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards, and co-author of the graphic novel American Terrorist (A Wave Blue World). Her poetry has been nominated for the Best of the Net Prize and the Pushcart Prize, and has been featured or is forthcoming at a variety of venues including The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Normal School, The Huffington Post, RHINO Poetry, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. She is a founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, and staff interviewer at Lantern Review. Born and raised in NYC, Wendy was educated at Cambridge University in English Literature and Sociology and now lives in Portland, OR with her husband, graphic novelist Tyler Chin-Tanner, and their two little girls.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I started writing very young and had some early success in the form of publications and contests, but I didn’t understand much about the business or how to find my own place in it. Most importantly, I didn’t have any strategies for how to handle the practical and emotional obstacles of writing life. So I quit writing for a while and devoted my time to sociological research and teaching until a serendipitous combination of factors gave me a way back in. Maternity leave with my older daughter gave me some unstructured time to tinker with poetry again and reconsider my career options. At around the same time, I had the good fortune of meeting some kindred spirits for critical mutual editorial support. And then I had the opportunity to work as a poetry editor at a few places, which taught me a lot about how the business works and introduced me to wider circles of writing and writers.
I started to publish individual poems and collecting them into my first book, Turn, which was literally rejected over fifty times before it was accepted at Sibling Rivalry Press. This year, Turn was chosen as a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. The lesson there is that one of the most important skills to have as a writer is the ability to weather rejection and persevere.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), a memoir in verse. The poems in Turn are concerned with some of the big questions I’ve struggled with: how we reconcile childhood, race, the legacy of immigration, gender, abuse, love, sex, motherhood, betrayal, forgiveness, and death. The word turn has multiple meanings. In turning, we can revolve and we can transform. We can turn away from something, turn towards something, turn back to something, and turn from one thing into something else. Turn is about life cycle and emotional evolution, using my own life as a context and touchstone for speaking about how certain areas of change and transformation might be common to us all.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I have a lovely little study tucked up in the eaves of the house where my books sit quietly on their shelves and my writing desk gathers dust. I call it The Wishful Thinking Room because I haven’t been able to sit down to write there for more months than I can count. I have an eight-year-old and an eleven-month-old so my actual writing environment is nowhere and everywhere. It’s inside my head and inside my iPhone’s notes app.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I tuck my working hours into the gaps that open up during the childcare day. The baby wakes at around 6:00 in the morning, nurses, and then hangs out with my husband for a couple of hours while I get down to some business. I often use this time for prose writing, editorial work, and administrative tasks. I stand by the maxim to get the hardest things done at the start of the day. Then I see my older daughter off to school and put the baby down for her morning nap, during which I am usually able to read and take notes or even draft poems on the iPhone. I have seriously written the vast majority of my next manuscript on the notes app. After the morning nap comes a possible workout and lunch with my husband who also works primarily from home as a graphic novelist and publisher. Our life as full-time artists and parents is a balancing act that requires a lot of communication, negotiation, flexibility, and patience. The baby’s afternoon nap yields another opportunity to work, which is most commonly taken up with revision. If I’m really in the thick of a project, I might continue working after the kids have gone to bed.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK PROCESS?
I routinely write down lines, sounds, words, thoughts, images, and quotes that might make their way into poems later. When I’m ready to draft a poem, I flip through those notes and allow something to spark my imagination. At this stage, I start laying down lines. I force myself to let my subconscious do what it wants without judgment. After that first pass, I polish, polish, polish until it feels right. Then I let the poem sit for a good while before revising it again. I’m a chronic reviser.
I like to practice a Darwinian model of revision: survival of the fittest (lines). An image can’t be there for the sake of window dressing alone. It has to serve a function in the poem. What work is it doing? What connection is it drawing? Is the language fresh and surprising? Is there a twist? Does it take the poem and the reader in a different direction? I try to be honest with myself. While poetry inherently makes use of density and distillation of language, it has at the same time the capacity to be expansive, to spark meanings and associations that move us far beyond the immediate sphere of the words on the page. If I find images in my work that aren’t doing that, I get rid of them. When in doubt, I cut it out.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I intend for every poem I write to be a conversation. A poem is a dialogue with an imagined reader. Every I is also a you. And every you is an I. I want my poems to be letters to the universe. If I’m lucky, the universe might write back.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
The thoughts that arise in the moments between sleeping and waking, the subconscious, critical theory, psychoanalysis, music, the musicality of language, visual media, the color of language, images and their meanings, metaphors, family, patterns, my kids, online chats with friends, and the bricolage of all these things.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Work-life balance. As the full-time mother of two small children, one of whom is a nursing infant, my choices are extremely limited when it comes to my ability to attend the conferences and retreats that are important for networking and career success. I know I’m not alone in this. The personal, practical, and economic limitations that affect caregivers are experienced mostly, though no exclusively, by women. This is just one of the many ways in which women are disadvantaged in the literary world. To begin to level the playing fields, we need things like affordable family accommodation, subsidized or cooperative childcare, and flexible schedules. There’s no reason that I should have to choose between weaning my baby or missing a great professional opportunity. There’s no reason that writers should be penalized for being mothers.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
Not to be afraid of periods of lull and to maintain faith that in those fallow periods, creative things are still happening. Not to be afraid of what might emerge after those periods of rest and to maintain faith that as rusty and disjointed and stylistically or thematically different as the new material might be, it’s leading somewhere. Not to be afraid of writing into the places and spaces that make us uncomfortable and maintaining faith that in doing so, we are finding some form of personal and universal truth. Not to be afraid of writing the truth, whether emotional or factual or both, and maintaining faith that despite potentially upsetting a few folks, it might resonate with many others and even inspire them to tell their own truths. Not to be afraid of being afraid and maintaining faith that fear is at the very heart of the writing process.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Vera Pavlova, Margaret Atwood, and Carson McCullers.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Wendy Chin-Tanner!
— Nicole Melanson
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