Q&A: Wendy Chin-Tanner
Q: What style of music do you think most closely resembles your poetry?
A: Years ago, I showed a poem of mine to a friend who was a composer and he said it reminded him of a fugue. A fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique built on a subject or theme at the beginning that repeats at different pitches and recurs frequently throughout the composition. It usually has three sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation containing the return of the subject. (Watch this video for a simple way to see fugue in action.)
It’s funny how an offhand remark can affect you, because what my friend said kind of stayed with me and I think the fugue might still be a fitting musical analogy for my poetic style. On a thematic level as well as a sonic level, I tend to play with form, rhyme, and meter (most often blank verse), and I work a good deal of assonance, consonance, and alliteration, all of which serve to examine different facets of themes and language.
My book, Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), also follows an overarching tripartite structure with three chapters that correspond to the three stages of life that I have experienced so far (childhood, early adulthood, and mid-adulthood) and the three stages of Hegel’s notion of Dialectical Materialism (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis). So the macro-fugue structure of the book mirrors the micro-fugue structure of many of its poems. I guess I have a bit of a fascination with storytelling in three arcs, as I love how it happens in the visual (triptychs, for example), theatrical, cinematic, musical, and literary arts.
Q: Did you choose your writing style, or did it choose you? What does your style allow you to do with your poetry, that other styles would not?
A: I like to think that my writing style is constantly evolving. Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, says in Annie Hall that a relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving or it dies. I think the same is true for poetic style.
Voice, however, is a different animal. Your poetic voice, once you find it, should remain consistent. Voice is how we know who’s talking. Your voice is a window into your unique perspective on the world. Stylistically, I seem to be playing a lot with form at the moment. For me, working with form allows for resistant and subversive elements, experiments, conflicting emotions, and linguistic wildness to be countered and contained within a certain pleasing and symmetrical structure. It’s like wearing a pair of poetic Spanx.
I also pay a lot of attention to creating layers of meaning as well as layers of sound in as dense and distilled a manner as possible. As Auden says, “poetry is… the clear expression of mixed feelings.” He also says that “music is the best means we have of digesting time.” Now ain’t that the truth?
Q: How do you choose what a poem will look like on the page?
A: During the writing process, most of the initial choices involved in putting a poem on the page are unconscious. But in the second, third, and subsequent passes during the crafting and then revision processes, my choices have to do with finding out how the relationship between form and content best suits what I want the poem to convey.
The content or narrative of the poem can be in harmony or in tension with its form. The same content with different form can radically change the interpretation of that poem. As Aristotle says in the Poetics, drama is dependent on conflict “either in the sense of struggle within a person or in the sense of the clashing of opposed principles.” It follows, then, that you can also create drama in a poem by consciously working with the tensions between the principles of its poetic elements.
Q: How do you choose your punctuation, or lack thereof? Does it have more to do with grammar, visual cues, or auditory/musical cues?
A: I am definitely conscious of using punctuation to guide the reader in the way I would intend a poem to sound were it to be read aloud. But most of my work seems to function on both the page and the stage as the visual aesthetic is important to me, too.
I do have some pieces that are more exclusively visual and they tend to be less grammatical, with looser punctuation or no punctuation at all. It can be an interesting challenge to use less traditional tools and still find a way to express rhythm, cadence, and flow.
A lack of punctuation, line breaks, and blank space can be used, for example, to arrest narrative and invite the reader to more slowly decode and consider meaning. What’s left unsaid in terms of punctuation can be just as meaningful as what’s left unsaid in words. But it has to make sense within the logic of the poem. There has to be a balance between style and substance.
Q: Do you think that punctuation can be equated with musical notation symbols such as note values, rests, and dynamic markings? How do you think of white space? Between words and stanzas? As it relates to the size and shape of the paper your work is printed on?
A: Consider Shakespeare’s Folio texts. They are the closest things to musical scores in literature that I can think of. They are an incredibly practical form of shorthand. Since his actors had little rehearsal time before performances, Shakespeare inscribed in his scripts a roadmap for how his verse was to sound. The interpretive choices are all right there on the page. He tells us when the verse rhymes, when it falters, and when it holds strong. Every punctuation mark is a clue, an invitation to a choice, or a change in pitch and tone.
In 2013, this may seem anachronistic and irrelevant in the context of contemporary American poetry, but embedded within the flesh of the English language is a strand of iambic DNA. There is a pulse to it, a musical rhythm underscoring all our utterances that can be exploited beautifully in poetry. This is why I’m so interested right now in playing with blank verse. In fact, the poems of my second book are written primarily in blank verse couplets or distichs.
Line breaks give you opportunities for forcing the eye to pause and assess meaning, creating multiple meanings and/or emphasizing meaning. The lacuna of the white space is powerful. For example, I have experimented with emphasizing the white space between words by creating an indentation within a single line. These experiments encourage the reader to consider the meanings of groups of words separately as well as the way they function together as a single sentence or thought.
Q: Do you think your poetry gives visual auditory cues to the reader? Do you think the reader hears the way you read your poetry by sight alone? If not, what do you think impedes this transfer of information?
A: Yes and no. Sometimes I make decisions on the page that I ignore or change when I read. For example, I privilege the cadence of spoken language over the pauses that the ends of lines might signal. Line breaks offer layers of meaning for the eye, but they can obscure meaning and ruin flow for the ear. This is why, if I’m working with rhyme, I favor tucking those rhymes into the bodies of my lines over the heavy percussion of end rhymes. I think this allows for more elision between lines, which creates space for interpretive choices and a more contemporary sound.
Q: How do you notate your poetry to make up for the lack of your voice being there? Do you try?
A: If I open my inner ear to a particular frequency and tune in often and carefully enough, I can hear the music of the words. Poems come to me as sound first and foremost. The visual element comes second, possibly even third. As the words come to me, I whisper them aloud. I mutter to myself. I write down those quiet mutterings in a continuous longhand scrawl. I say to myself, don’t judge, don’t judge, don’t judge. Then, when I transfer my notes to a Word document, I begin to find their form.
I imagine that creating a finished poem in this way is an act of composition that’s pretty similar to musical composition. Words are the notes to my score. The notation of a line relies on working with and subverting the conventions of contemporary American English.
The elements of those conventions include but are not exclusive to grammar, punctuation, lineation, cadence, rhyme, and pronunciation. I think you could also make an argument for regional specificity in the music of a poetic line. The way I would read a line, growing up bilingual in NYC and then spending 15 years in England is, I’m sure, very different from how a person with a different background would read a line. The presence of such linguistic specificity and learning to work with it is part of honing a poetic voice, too.
Q: Do you consider yourself a performer of your poetry, or a reader? How come?
A: When I present my poetry to an audience, I don’t think of it as a performance or a reading. What I focus on is creating an intimate experience with the listener. I try to disappear within the poems so that a form of transference can occur, as it does in the psychoanalytic process or in the act of watching a play or film. The listener identifies with the speaker while the self of the poet merges with a universal self.
The ultimate goal of my work is to convey the simultaneity of specificity and universality. In fact, I work on the assumption that it is through carefully curated specificity that universality can be achieved, and when I read, I try to help this process along.
Q: How would you describe your performance/reading style? Do you think that popular reading styles have shaped the way you read, or have you actively worked against the pull of mainstream performance style?
A: I’d like to think that my style on stage might be described as intimate, intense, and direct.
In my undergraduate years, I was an active member of the ADC Theatre at Cambridge University and I did some theater acting in my twenties in London, too. I learned some pretty useful elements of stagecraft from those experiences, for example, vocal control, breath control, and projection, not to mention how to deal with verse.
We did a lot of Shakespeare, as you can imagine. But being onstage reading your own work is a totally different beast from being onstage in character. Working with a microphone also requires a different skill set.
When I started doing readings, I had to figure out what I was doing onstage all over again. It wasn’t particularly helpful to take note of mainstream performance styles because I was pretty sure I needed to go inward and find a style that was authentic to myself and my poems.
One thing I did do before my first featured reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC was to watch Judi Dench read poems on YouTube. She has a wonderfully intimate style that conveys the narrative of a poem perfectly while still staying true to meter. If you can master that skill, it doesn’t matter if you’re reading in meter or not – you’ve taught yourself to simultaneously communicate the music and meaning of a piece of verse.
Q: Do you think you’re the best performer/reader of your own work?
I’ve never really considered the idea that anyone else would be interested in reading my work aloud, but it could be an amazing experiment, I think, for a group of poets who are really familiar with one another’s work to swap work at a reading, especially poets of different genders. I’d love to see that happen sometime.
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In the old beige station wagon straining forward on the road like a dog frantically sniffing for the way home,
we are lost in the winding countryside, overgrown branches scratching the roof as the signs bearing route numbers grow too dark to read after a day spent hunting real estate;
a house, some land, some water where we could run, a precaution after Chernobyl when we drank only powdered milk and frozen juice for a year.
In the front seat, Ma and Ba sit silhouetted in silence, sustained in the green glow of the dashboard, a play of shadows flitting from the landscape over their faces.
Across the broad lap of the leather backseat, I lie supine as the daylight that had earlier been so dazzling and bright dancing in the paisley of the real estate agent’s scarf
fades from dusk to a black whose dense immensity, though the opposite of light, holds its own kind of clarity, a reminder of how far
you could fall, and I imagine that the car door could suddenly unlatch and I would fly out into that darkness, into the woods, into the universe. Outside my window above the blur, I scan the horizon for a still spot,
but a shooting star screeches, skidding across the night and amid the clouds tumbling thick and ink-smeared and round,
there is no moon to be found until long after we arrive when its battered face appears,
a pale ghost hanging in the bright morning sky.
(Poem first published at Mascara Literary Review. From Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014).)
Wendy Chin-Tanner’s first collection, Turn, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in March 2014. She has been nominated for the 2012 Best of the Net Award and her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous journals including The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge, The Saint Ann’s Review, The Raintown Review, Praxilla, Melusine, Mascara Literary Review, Umbrella, Softblow, Angle, and Lantern Review. She is a founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, poetry editor at Stealing Time Magazine and The Nervous Breakdown, staff interviewer at Lantern Review, co-founder of A Wave Blue World (publisher of graphic novels), and an online sociology instructor at Cambridge University, UK. Wendy lives in Portland, OR.