This week, we have the pleasure of sharing with you an interview with Michelle Chan Brown, author of Double Agent, which won the 2011 Kore First Book Award for Poetry. Double Agent is a fascinating book, described by Laura Kasischke as a collection of poems that “takes us on journeys across continents by way of hard fact combined with the subtlest of strangeness, the eeriest musicality, and the most startling of shifts and observations.”
Michelle Chan Brown’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Linebreak, The Missouri Review, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Witness, and others. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was a Rackham Fellow. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and received scholarships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. Her chapbook, The Clever Decoys, is available from LATR Editions. She lives with her husband, the musician Paul Erik Lipp, in Washington DC, where she teaches, writes, and edits Drunken Boat.
What makes a writer, or a piece of writing, “feminist?”
A flip-book of writers I loved as a teenager, when I was piloting versions of my female self in the world – Woolf, Munro, Plath, The Yellow Wallpaper. I’m still in the process of reading to that Introduction to Feminism syllabus in my head – I only just finished “Written on the Body” for example. The last book I remember reading and thinking “feminist!” was actually Jennifer Egan – both “Goon Squad” and “Look at Me.” Her use of parody really highlights the literary tics of my generation’s Important Voices (all male) that have become so vaunted – but her books certainly don’t see that critique as the primary or secondary subject of her books. Her humor and irreverence and sense of gentle contempt – a sort of ‘are we really going to keep indulging this?’ – strike me as the most elegant and effective form of social and feminist critique. Any text that shrugs at easy binaries regarding gender, or forms and subjects as gender-specific, or forms as subjects suitable only for specific genders – those texts are the happy result of the efforts of feminism.
A writer, regardless of gender, can – and should – have the prerogative to define themselves as “feminist.” My concern is that the label has been coopted by the book industry to explicitly or underhandedly marginalize work by labeling it as such, and folding all sorts of caveat emptors into the batter – that the furthering of discourse will trump artistry or entertainment or pleasure. I do, though, have a lot of respect for presses such as Kore that label themselves as feminist; their mission is to bring work into the world that might be overlooked because of misogynistic notions what constitutes literature. To claim ignorance to the troubling history of women in literature – as subjects and authors – would be disingenuous. Sometimes, though, invoking the “feminist” label to either promote or marginalize is dubious at best.
What role does poetry have in the feminist dialogue? How do you see your work as a writer and/or as an editor participating in feminist dialogue?
I think poetry is critical to the feminist dialogue – it’s the genre where more women assume positions of leadership and initiate conversations about the art from both a creative and corporate standpoint.
Poetry and feminism – as terms and ideas – suffer the same stigma, and are fingered as being irrelevant, exclusive, obsessed with interiority, whiny, etc. And I’m curious about the detractors and naysayers. These forms trouble and inconvenience and unsettle existing hierarchies and assignations of value. So I think anyone who is satisfied with the current order of the universe – and we can all infer who that would be – would not benefit from putting much stock in poetry or feminism.
That said, there’s ambivalence – or maybe tension is more accurate – toward the way the term “feminism” marries women’s issues in this country. My mother, who emigrated from Hong Kong and was one of the early female graduate students at Princeton, rolls her eyes at the Anne-Marie Slaughter school of bemoaning the problem of “having it all.” For her, these are (as my students would say) hash tag “first world problems.” It’s difficult not to feel uneasy when thinking about feminist issues in DC, for example, as compared to India.
That said, however, not a week passes when I am not reminded of my gender, through direct or observed experience. As a teacher, I’m often troubled by the way my female students, no matter how bright or quirky or inimitable or privileged, have their time and energy sucked away in pursuit of beauty. I want to be in a position where I can say to them, confidently – all this will fall away. But it does not. Women still derive too much of their sense of self and their power in the world through their image, and beauty is certainly no achievement. It can’t be nurtured like character, curiosity, eccentricity. I still can’t shake the sense that, as women, our response can be defiance, submission, or withdrawal – but a response nonetheless. Passivity.
Who are some of your writing influences? Which writers do you admire, and why?
My first loves were Plath, Dickinson and Blake. I memorized “The Tyger” as a child, and “Daddy” as a college student, and “My Life Had Stood” as an adult. My response to these poems is pre-verbal; it’s totally in the body, a bizarr-o erotic buzz. A lot of my poems come to me as a line that doesn’t make “sense” or invite a narrative or even, at first, a set of images or associations, but that gives me that same sexual itch as those poems. I grew up with a lot of languages. My mother’s family is Chinese, and we were living in Krakow during my language-acquisition years, so I attended Polish schools and switched back easily between Polish and English – perhaps this contributes to my obsession with sensual sonics. The poets I’ve been enamored with lately are Cynthia Cruz, Frederick Seidel, Daisy Fried, and Brenda Shaughnessy – perhaps because I see that same confluence of music, wit and savagery in all of them.
I engage in two forms of reading: investigative (primarily poetry) and heedless (novels, short stories, essays.) The second is greedy and undiscriminating, a continuation of how I read as a child – we moved every few years, so books were my company. Everything from Nabokov to Edith Wharton to John Le Carre to Amy Hempel and David Rakoff and David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell and the jockey mysteries of Dick Francis – I love all of it, and thus it’s influenced me.
The title poem of your first book, Double Agent, takes as its setting a naturalization ceremony, and the book is very engaged with questions of citizenship, language, identity, and propaganda. Why are these questions important to you? Is “naturalization” a political, cultural, or personal process, and how does your book navigate this?
Wonderful question. What is propaganda? “Selective facts,” right? A series of seeming truths to promote a lie? And then there’s fiction and poetry – telling it slant, the lie in service of the truth, etc. I wonder how dependent the relationship between reader and writer is on the implicit promise of authenticity from the latter. We’re obviously not OK with half-truths in memoir unless we’ve been sufficiently warned, even though we know that there IS no such thing as truth where consciousness is involved. Every individual knows themselves to be a liar, but the extension of the self toward another – be it reader, friend, or partner – seems to be based on this necessary child-like naivete that you are receiving truth from someone else, who is a twitching bundle of inventions and delusions and self-protections just like you. The fact that we can recognize this from a distance but continue to act as if oblivious to it fascinates me. Love is this naked expression of human vulnerability, but isn’t every relationship an enactment of its own propaganda at one time or another? Even the “pure” ones like mother and child? I’m obsessed with this, too, because of the many forms of code-switching I participated in growing up – from growing up abroad to being bi-racial to living on a diplomatic compound to attending and then teaching at a boarding school –these self-contained spaces in which performance and the pressure to “naturalize” and the terms of insider status seemed so important
The book’s four striking “Autobiography” poems beautifully blur the lines between “I,” “you,” “we,” and “she,” between mother and speaker and lover and black horse. In what ways are these poems seeking to work within and/or against autobiographical literary tradition?
The Autobiography poems were part of an unblocking exercise, written at a residency that I’d pinned all my dreams of prodigious output on, only to find myself writing cut-rate versions of poems I’d already written. I was also very fearful of the idea that my only subject could be myself. I never took very much to the Confessional tradition (I think Plath has been mislabeled) but I didn’t feel erudite enough to construct an elaborate historical narrative or something. So I decided to meet that fear head-on and directly address this shadow “you” (my vices, my weaknesses) and throw out any expectation that these would ever be read by anyone.
Along with the book’s title trope, the idea of disguise or fluid identity surfaces frequently, from the speaker’s “false leg” to the repeated image of “shedding” or “scrubbing off” one’s face. How do you negotiate themes of identity and sincerity in this text, both tonally and metaphorically?
During the most intensive period of writing this book, I was a in a maze, Shining-style – I kept turning into these new tonal spaces, from histrionic to detached to ironic, hoping that this would be the one, the true. Some poets, like Sharon Olds and Tony Hoagland, seem to be so settled and yet limber in their poetic selves; she in her sincerity and he in his almost-refusal-to-be. But I’m squeamish about sincerity and inept with irony. So I suppose the book’s speaker is playing dress-up with tones, throwing all the outfits in the trunk, the princess and the gypsy and the general, and then getting into the trunk, shutting the lid, and falling asleep in all that fabric. Forgive that horribly ungainly metaphor.
Militaristic language permeates this book, from its title to the names of individual poems like “Enemy,” “Second-in-Command,” or “Pleasuring the Enemy.” In “Second-in-Command,” you write: “A weak man cannot make exceptions,/he said. To be mercenary is a crime//against womanhood.” What role does military language play in discussions of gender and gender roles in this book?
I’m interested in the way military language and bureaucratic idiom neutralize (neuter?) violence in their rendition of events. And yet military language is meant to be efficient, to distill down to the essentials, to promote effective action. It functions to command; in actuality, it often deflects. How can these coexist? Then we have so-called “poetic” language, which is traditionally seen as imbuing the nearly-invisible emotional nuance with the richest possible language. I was thinking a lot about accuracy, purpose, intent – what is language for?
As for the gender question, I was also thinking about food and the body. I had anorexia for a period of time as a teenager, and became (obviously) fixated with “commanding” the body, monitoring caloric intake and activity, reading a lot of drivel about how best to do that. So many of those how-to books that promise the perfect body are written in this kind of chilling, cheery imperative. During this period, another voice emerged from my authentic voice that urged me to engage in behaviors that would lead me to the reductions, the “perfection” (non-corporeality) that I wanted. And I think that many women (and men, too) have versions of that second voice that arrives with the onset of adolescence and self-consciousness and never really departs.
The formal variety in this book intrigued me. You frequently write in couplets and prose, and you also often play off of the sonnet form. What role do these forms play in your discussions of borders and place?
The truth is that form always, always arrives midway through the composition of a poem. If I set out to write a sonnet, I always end up with a prose poem. Because I never stayed in any place very long, there was a sense of trying to redraw the borders of the new place according to the rules of the old, and always being a bit, well, off. I think this may be the source of my formal mania.
This book is full of mothers and fathers, “motherland” and “mother tongue.” In “Autobiography,” a woman buries “her pearls/& her placenta,” and “true men” are defined in “Pins & Needles” as “the generals and electricians,/the talkers and takers of night.” What is the relationship, for you, between land and family? Are land or country gendered entities?
I spent some time in Russia and also studied Russian in college, and there’s a strong sense of the land as female, as this mother who cares for us all. There’s also a reverence for the female in Russian literature and culture as the source of redemption and stability and virtue. A lot of that grandiosity seemed to be lip service, though, when you look at the actual state of gender relations and treatment of women (domestic violence, Pussy Riot?) in contemporary Russia.
Beyond that, though, the idea of the mother and the woman and the body, that complicated love triangle – the question of who owns the body? What are ways to assert ownership of it? Women are charged to take care of themselves and to be beautiful – for a mate, for “self-esteem,” to be a worthy vessel for their babies. Does a woman ever get to exercise authority over her own body? Is the female body even intended for that?
What is your current/next project?
I am working on a new manuscript – “Purge” – which I’m aiming to finish over the summer. Also writing some short fiction and fragments of a novel. My husband, who records under Evening Man, will be working on his third album this summer, and I hope to contribute some vocals and lyrics to that project.