A conversation with poet Robin Rosen Chang
Rosen Chang’s debut poetry collection, "The Curator’s Notes," contends with loss and hope
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or designer from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with poet and educator Robin Rosen Chang about her debut poetry collection, The Curator’s Notes (Terrapin Books, 2021), available on Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The views presented by the interview subject are the opinions of the subject and do not represent the views of the author or this newsletter. Browse the full interview archive here.
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THE USONIAN: The Curator’s Notes is dedicated to your mother. And many of the poems in the collection are elegiac in tone and content related to the speaker’s mother. Did you set out to write a collection based on this premise; or did the ideas for these problems occur to you at different moments in the book’s composition?
ROBIN ROSEN CHANG: I definitely did not set out to write this book. But I think it’s one that I had to write—it chose me, not the other way around. Poetry engages with our obsessions and preoccupations. I would say that The Curator’s Notes definitely does that. Loss was very much a part of my life when I started writing this. However, this book is also much more than the elegiac—it’s about love and beauty. It also has to do with hopes and dreams, as well as feminine identity, which is one of the dominant themes within the Creation series. But it is also about the stories and identities we inherit.
It’s important for me to add that a lot of new readers to poetry often conflate the speaker in a poem with the writer. They may believe that a poem is a literal autobiographical story and account of what and how something happened. Poetry is art. We revise, we edit, we think about what we want to express; it conveys an emotional truth. It’s important to me that people understand that my book is not a journal or chronicle of my life.
TU: The Curator’s Notes also focuses on the Garden of Eden, including allusions to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam mural in the Sistine Chapel. Several of your poems investigate the experience of Eve, a woman who had no mother (“Motherless, Eve”). For this book, what drew you to the Genesis story?
RRC: I’m not religious, and I don’t know where [the Creation theme] initially came from. The first poem I wrote was “Bleeding into the Garden,” which was about Eve. Then I wrote one about Adam, and I continued with them, enjoying getting away from other themes I had been engaging with. I was an MFA student at The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College [in Swannanoa, North Carolina] while I was writing the core of this book. When I was getting ready to assemble my thesis manuscript, my advisor, Rodney Jones, said that he didn’t think the Creation poems would work with the other poems. I don’t know why, but I wanted them to be part of the thesis. He suggested I try to write some poems that would connect the narrative poems with the Creation theme, and that’s when I suddenly had this thought about Eve being motherless. I realize I was exploring what being motherless—having no maternal figure whatsoever—would really mean, and how it would be manifest. I understand now that Eve emerged as a foil for the speaker to address some of her preoccupations and concerns.
TU: Why did you choose “The Curator’s Notes” to be the titular poem?
RRC: Initially, the collection was titled, “My Mother Was Water.” However, I wasn’t convinced that I wanted a title that would make it appear that the book’s sole focus was on the speaker’s mother. “The Curator’s Notes” was a much more appropriate titular poem because the book curates memory. Memory is derived from artifacts, such as photographs and things we see. There’s often something physical that connects to memory. This poem explores that idea and also reflects the way that we arrange and make meaning out of our memories. Memory can also be very fleeting. The titular poem deals with what exists as well as what no longer exists, and what we hold onto as we move forward in our lives.
TU: Maybe some people might think it’s all going to be ekphrasis.
RRC: There’s definitely a lot of [art-inspired poems]. Art and architecture formed another means to allow me to explore different themes. It became a way to access interior thoughts.
TU: Your poetry, in this collection, showcases a style that is both precise and spare. Could you elaborate on your style and maybe talk about who your poetic influences are?
RRC: When you mention spare, I think of Charles Simic. I also think about Lucille Clifton, who was perhaps the best at being able to say so much in poems that are very distilled, but I don’t know that I can claim either of them as my strong influences. I’ve probably been more shaped by the work of Louise Glück. She deals with some of the themes I address, and her writing is very precise. In Meadowlands, she interweaves allegory with contemporary poems, which I also do. She tends to be both lyric and narrative, tendencies I also have.
I’m also attracted to poets that focus on the natural world. I love W. S. Merwin. I’m also enamored with Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. I admire how he engages with memory and the natural world, especially in his poem “Baltics.” However, his style is much more effusive than mine.
TU: What have been some formative moments in your development as a poet?
RRC: In 2006, a friend of mine took me to the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, That was when I really discovered poetry. I didn’t start writing poetry until a few years later. That said, I always wanted to be a writer, but I simply had never found my genre.
In 2015, I began studying in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. That was by far where I had the most growth as a writer. I also developed community and strength there, [and learned] to go deep, to not censor myself, to sit down and write, even if I’m not feeling inspired. I never would have had the confidence, discipline, and ability to write this book without having studied at The MFA Program for Writers. I had incredible mentors to whom I am very indebted.
TU: You mentioned the discipline of writing, even when you’re not inspired. What does your writing process look like? How do you compose a poem? Some poets say they have like a triggering image or idea, and that’s where they start. How does that work for you?
RRC: I’m often inspired by an image or something I’ve read. The titular poem was prompted by a photograph I saw in an article. It was about a dinosaur bone found in fossilized resin, but there was also an image of an ant that was contained in the same piece of resin. That’s an example of how something seemingly innocuous can be the impetus for a poem.
In regards to my process, I confess that I’m an embarrassingly slow writer. Once in a blue moon, I’ll have a couple poems that come quickly, and that’s a fantastic and gratifying experience. However, that is not the norm. Probably my biggest challenge is ending my poems. It often takes me a long time to figure out what my poems are about, and that’s frustrating. I also spend a lot of time on revision too. I revise poems dozens of times.
TU: What advice do you have for young poets interested in improving their craft?
RRC: Young poets need to read a lot. They should read for enjoyment, but also to think about and study the craft decisions that writers make. Then they need to consider the effects of those different decisions. I’d add that they should also try to reach for the strange and surprising when they’re writing. I will also quote Marianne Boruch and recommend that writers “sit at the trapdoor” to the interior. They need to go inside and see what is there. They need to let go of their inner editors and critics. They also need to rid themselves of the canned language they were taught in composition.
TU: Are you reading anything right now you’d like to recommend?
RRC: I’m reading several books. I just started Diane Seuss’s new book, Frank: Sonnets, which is extremely powerful. I’m also reading Victoria Chang’s Obit, which is a novel approach to the elegiac. I recently read John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, forwhich he just won the Kingsley Tufts Award. It’s an incredible book. I really loved it. An unusual recent read was Romey’s Order by Atsuro Riley. It engages with sound and making meaning from sound. It almost has its own language. It’s one of the most unusual poetry books I’ve read in a long time, and it’s beautiful. I also recommend Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses.
TU: Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
RRC: I’d like to reiterate that The Curator’s Notes is based on perceptions, and perceptions rarely accurately represent reality—people need to understand that when they read poetry. Moreover, what they take away from a poem is also based on what they bring to it. One’s experiences, thoughts, attitudes, and backgrounds are going to affect the way someone interprets what they read. There’s an interplay that occurs.
Also, many people don’t want to read poetry books cover-to-cover. But a poetry book has its own arc. With this book, it’s important to get to the ending, because the tone and the outlook change; I certainly hope that people experience the transformation and growth that occurs. I also hope that many readers will connect with the different themes that emerge in this collection and that they learn something about themselves and how they move through this world.
Robin Rosen Chang is the author of The Curator’s Notes, a full-length poetry collection published by Terrapin Books (2021). Her poems appear in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Journal, Diode, North American Review, The Cortland Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the Oregon Poetry Association’s Fall 2018 Poets’ Choice Award, an honorable mention for Spoon River Poetry Review’s 2019 Editors’ Prize, and a 2021 Pushcart nominee. An earlier version of her book was a finalist for Warren Wilson’s 2018 Levis Alumni Award for a manuscript in progress. She has an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She can be found online at robinrosenchang.com.
The Usonian Raffles, No. 1
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