YILAN by Kristin Chang

In Taiwan the rain spits on my skin.

            I lose the way to my grandmother’s

house, eat a papaya by the side of the road,

 

            papaya in Taiyu meaning wood

melon. My grandmother’s house is wood

            & always wet, as if absence

 

holds water.  As if drowning

            itself.  My stomach oversweetens

on fruit, wears a belt of rot.  Pre-

 

            typhoon heat coiling back

like a punch.  I take a train from Yilan

            to Taipei, the same route

 

my mother fled when the Japanese came.

            By the side of the road, she saw a child eating

another child’s face. What my mother

 

            ate during wartime: five flies

in oil.  The open sores of fruit & so

            much rain. Once, a girl gunned

 

down with her mouth full

            of milk.  Once, my mother

bent to drink from another

 

            girl’s mouth. In Taipei, I watch bodies

syrup in my heat-slow sight. A blonde

            woman in an advertisement

 

for skin bleach, looking like

            my ex, looking like my first

-world face.  I watched

 

            the typhoon from the 65th

floor of the Marriot, watched

            smaller buildings lean

 

like thirst to water. After, a salt scent

            inflecting the air.  In my mouth, a sea’s

accent. In Yilan, they will gather the dead

 

            parts of the trees & burn away

the rot.  It was my grandmother

            who taught me to burn

 

only what you must, then water

            the rest.  Who taught me

that a tree is a body

 

            through which water becomes fire.

In Yilan, my mother harvested sugar

            cane, dragon’s eye, unidentified

 

limbs, small & sickling like fruit

            fallen before it is ripe.  In another country,

my mother watches soap operas

 

            in her native dialect, about time

traveling women who fall in love

            with Japanese soldiers.  I dream about

 

being loved in another time

            zone. About meeting a woman here,

speaking in a Chinese that bursts

 

            apart in our mouths like fruitpulp.

We will pretend it is love

            that lasts.  I pretend not to know

 

what men do.  What women

            remember. I understand the news

enough to know another typhoon

 

            is coming, another estimated body

count: infinite.  According to the news,

            it is possible to predict violence

 

like a storm.  I call my mother

            & she speaks to me in three languages

but names me in one: Kristin, meaning

 

            bearer of Christ.  In my name, too many names

for god.  Through the second typhoon,

            I sleep with my fist against my jaw,

 

wake with my teeth hitting ache

            like a surprise pit.  I dream of telling

 

my mother I love her

 

            country.  I dream of telling

my mother I identify sexually as

            alive. Instead, I sleep

 

until evening, dream of frying

            Yilan in an oily dark.  When

my grandmother died, we were asleep

 

            in America, 15 hours ahead

in the night, waking up

            in her future. When she died, I imagine

 

all the trees did too.  I imagine

            the trees I touch are new

generations of the same

 

            loss. I left Yilan while the sea still

boiled with stormbirth.  In Chinese,

            typhoon is tai feng, sharing a word

 

with tai wan. A nation named

            after its greatest disaster. My body

named for what it bears, what

 

            it bares: this nation,

where nothing is still

            waiting to be saved

 

& the dead are still

                               dying.

 

 

What does the title, “Emerging poet,” mean to you?

 

Unfortunately, I’ve mostly encountered the term “emerging poet” in the more bureaucratic contexts of competitions/guidelines/etc. – but I love the idea of encountering it in a new context of perpetual growth and self-birth.I like the idea that I’m permanently “emergent” in my writing, in the middle of birthing myself again and again. Breaking the ground beneath my feet. I’ve also always felt like writing poetry is a kind of puberty for me – an uncomfortable bodily process that makes me feel like I’m waking up every day in a different body.

 

Do you consider yourself an “emerging” poet? Why or why not?

 

The technical “definition” of an emerging poet seems to vary vastly depending on who you ask – and I usually fit those technicalities because I’ve never published a book. But that seems so arbitrary – these definitions are extremely misleading because in so many ways, marginalized poets are always having to engineer their emergence, always having to self-promote and struggle not just with a poem, but whose gazes are on it. I’d like to destroy “emerging” as a credential-based term and think about it as that feeling of constantly arriving somewhere new. Every poem I write feels like my first.It never stops feeling new and strange and unstable. Sometimes, starting a new poem feels like relearning or destroying everything I’ve written before.

 

What do you think it takes to be “recognized” in the poetry community?

 

Yikes! I have no idea. I don’t think there is a cohesive poetry community, and there are certainly many poetry communities I have no wish to be read by – there is institutional violence and erasure, overwhelming whiteness and straightness and patriarchy. I feel like the poetry community I’ve chosen is one of mostly teen Asian women (I’m a teen for one more year) who have been writing with me and posting our work together on Tumblr. It’s been other queer Asian poets who have done so much for me, who have recognized me on the deepest level of recognizing themselves in my work. To me, that is the most fulfilling recognition: that someone who shares my identities can see that my work is for them.

 

How do you think power politics shape the poetry community?

 

The real question is: how doesn’t it shape the poetry community? Even the entire concept of poetry has been warped by white institutions as something supposedly only white educated people do. From who gets to be an editor/who gets to select the work to how accessible poetry is, everything is shaped by power and privilege. Even on the most intimate level of writing, I am always struggling to get rid of the white gaze, the thing in my mind that’s always asking “is it too cliché for an Asian to write about _____?” “How would a white woman read this line?” Etc. I’m just so incredibly grateful to the Shade Journal and other publications that are doing the space-making work.

 

What does community mean to you?

Community to me is more than an abstract idea. It’s sharing resources, supporting each other materially and emotionally, and living with your ghosts. It’s the lineage we choose.  

 

  

KRISTIN CHANG lives in NY. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, Teen Vogue, Foundry Journal, Tinderbox Poetry, Connotation Press, and elsewhere. Her chapbook "Past Lives, Future Bodies" is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2018. She is on staff at Winter Tangerine and is located at kristinchang.com.

 

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