Q&A: Marilyn Chin
What would be you willing to tell us about Don, to whom the poem is dedicated?
Don was my beautiful boyfriend, who died suddenly of an aneurysm during Thanksgiving week, 2011. He was the love of my life. He was only fifty-three. He closed his eyes, fell into a coma, and I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. I had written various quatrain sequences in an eight-year span (yes, I’m one for slow-brewing a good sequence) and stitched these together after his death.
In the “Beautiful Boyfriend” series, some quatrains are tributes to my beloved, some celebrate “boyfriendness” — a love that is different from “husbandness.” A concept that has nothing to do with mating but with eros.
Tell us about the “nine doors” of your body.
From the Bhagavad Gita—the commentators will tell you that the nine “gates” consist of two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, one mouth, and two doors beneath the navel—one for the “organs of regeneration,” one for the business of excretion. Obviously, the ancient texts had the male body in mind. The female body has one more “door” which the patriarchy completely ignored.
Well, in any case. I prefer the number nine to the number ten. It’s richer for numerological reasons. And yes, I am aware of that secret tenth door.
How do the “cries of suffering” impede loving someone “like no other?”
Carnal and “romantic” love, eros, can take precedent over other kinds of love. This is not a critique as much as an observation of my own experience. With my “beautiful boyfriend” I learned blissful abandon! I learned to celebrate the fleeting moment.
But as an activist poet, I can’t help but hear the cries of those less fortunate. That the bliss of eros must sooner or later be interrupted by the bad news of the world.
What is the “other side of hate”?
Hate, as in the trauma of war, of poverty, of discrimination, of tribal violence, all that dark stuff of humanity. The antithesis of which would be unconditional love, of course.
The poem ranges quite widely in terms of its geography, citing such places
as Tijuana, Little Sudan, the Irrawaddy River; are these focal points of “calamity”?
For most of the year, I live in sunny San Diego which borders Tijuana, the infamous sister city. There is a neighborhood in East San Diego that some refer to as “Little Sudan.” One could hear prayers coming off of rooftops. San Diego for me is a place of both multiple exiles and sunny pluralism. Relocation and dislocation. It is also the site for both my home and my homelessness. Of breathtaking landscapes and arbitrary borders. I have complex feelings about this place. I often escape from it, and sometimes I escape “into” it. Right now, it’s a lonely place without my love.
The Irrawaddy River is an ancient holy river rich with temples and sacred sites along its banks. In the sequence, I tried to offer my lover with funereal rites in different landscapes, and the places are deeply symbolic. I wanted to drift his body saint-like on the sacred Irrawaddy River and give his commoner’s death holy ramifications. Later in the series I also honor him with a gun salute and caissons; he was in the air force in his youth and deserves recognition.
I was not able to say goodbye properly, because he died suddenly. But the imagination does not need a visa to roam the planet to give him a vivid send off.
A variety of music is heard: early Mozart, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. Do places and works of art somehow outlast or transcend those “beau- tiful boyfriends” who are “transitory,” and victims of “malarial deltas,” “typhoidal cays,” “tsumamis,” and what the poem calls “the perfume of transience?” What, in other words, constitutes “oblivion”?
Alas, we are transitory creatures—our “perfume” lasts a short mo- ment on earth. Oblivion is final; each of us will die, our flesh will rot and return to earth and we will be wiped out of existence. I am certain that there is no hereafter.
And yes, poets continue to make the insistent argument that art is “immortal.” I suppose this was in the forefront of Emily Dickinson’s mind as she carefully prepared her packets of poems to leave in her dresser for eternity.
And the music of dead composers continues to move us. Yes, my beloved is gone; and though I wouldn’t bet on it, I hope that my elegies will help his memory linger a little longer on earth.
I want to talk about the first quatrain a bit, for it sets up the rest of the sequence. I wanted to prepare the reader for quatrains that are inspired by both Eastern and Western traditions. I open with a sumptuous Chinese line, with the characteristic brocades: “spicewood,” “cassia bracts”... the skiff erotically signifies the woman’s body.
Then the third line moves toward western music: Mozart, Coltrane; “miles and miles of Miles” is a perfect iambic trimeter frag-ment, ending with a pun. (This is the kind of line that my teacher Donald Justice would be proud of. I recall his saying that ideally there should be at least three interesting things happening in a line.) The Miles I was thinking about is the Miles of Sketches of Spain and not the Miles of Bitches Brew. We move from a traditional erotic Chinese landscape to European classical music to African American jazz within one quatrain. I was aiming for a strange but elegant fusion.
Thematically, this opening quatrain is a universal message—it’s about surrendering to love—a sunny afternoon adrift with music, wine, and love. How splendid is our short life on earth—how blissful our human moment. But formally and stylistically, this short quatrain is also packed with inspired Eastern and Western references, and I am delighting in the process of creating a new hybrid East/West quatrain form.
The quatrains that follow, then, shape-shift into different physical, emotional, and psychic terrains. In a sequence, each quatrain competes with the others for recognition. I tried to make each one asstrong as possible—vivid, self-contained, yet open and elliptical enough for the reader to relish and reread many times to make per- sonal connections, to get the full resonance. And the experience of the entire sequence must be even more sumptuous than the parts.
Poet Marilyn Chin was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Oregon, in the U.S. Northwest. She earned a BA from the University of Massachusetts and MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A noted anthologist, translator and educator as well as a poet and novelist, Chin’s work distills her...