This conversation between Haven Gomez and Michelle Lin focuses on Lin’s first book, A House Made of Water, and is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations between poets of color.
Haven Gomez: In your book, A House Made of Water, you have two poems entitled, “In the House Made of Water,” which, in some aspects, speak of a struggle with identity, one of self and the other in the eyes of the grandmother. Would you say that these two are the heart of the book? Were these poems inspired by the name of your book, or was the name of your book a product of them?
Michelle Lin: I like the idea of these poems as being the heart of the book, because it implies that the book may in fact have two (or more) hearts, which seeks to complicate the book’s life (which is what I hope it has: a complicated life).
Funnily enough, neither of the “In the House Made of Water” poems began with these titles. The first one to appear in the book was initially called “Spells,” and the second, “Aubade Ending with the Next Generation.”
With the naming of the book, I renamed these poems. I felt that “Spells,” a poem I had written very early on in my career, even without that title, bore the same urgencies in its lines, that the near-incantations will themselves into being, regardless. Perhaps this is one heart of the book: the notion that writing or speaking, alone, could manifest new realities. “You look only like yourself” as the blood-jet beating through some of the other poems, the speaker’s (me) need to break the generational cycle of trauma, anxiety, and depression.
The second “In the House Made of Water” poem was written close to the end of the manuscript being done, and I think it takes a different tactic though it shares some of the same stakes. “As mother, I will be the last/ to bathe”, “I, her, she, me, our/ hard-learned ways” is also a conflation of our selves, an endless formation of identities, and the desire to rupture anew. The House Made of Water = a home, yes. Also: body, identity, memory.
The second poem is particularly important to me because “I confess/ no man has ever laid a sharp hand upon us.” I wanted this poem to trouble the existing memories/narratives in the book, especially when the opening poem “Transmutation Traume” is so fraught with physical violence. What happens when violence is not physically marked upon the body, does it become harder to inscribe? If these poems are hearts that drive a certain blood into all the other poems, then these are hearts that have changed many names.
HG: What was your thought process in ordering the poems in your book? All of the Hellenic poems and both of the “In the House Made of Water” poems are separated. Was there a specific feeling or arc you wanted to produce in the reader when thinking about their separation?
ML: I went through many different orders for this book. There was a good half year of my life when the poems were printed and laid across the ground of my house, arranged and rearranged, and rearranged again. I went through different exercises as instructed by my mentors: ordering the poems only by looking at the first and last lines of each (Lynn Emanuel). Selecting one image or theme I did NOT believe was a major motif, and reordering the whole manuscript to try and bring that theme more to the surface (Terrance Hayes). And more.
I went through all of those long, and necessary, journeys to in fact realize that this book needed to be arranged in a deceptively simple manner. What story does the reader need to know first before the next? I realized for this book, it needed to have this narrative trajectory. What must the reader understand first of my grandmother, before understanding about this other aspect of my grandmother? I sought to complicate poems in this way. I sought to juxtapose poems to keep the histories from being struck two-dimensional, because they were far from that.
In addition to storytelling, I was listening to the music through the book—where it wanted to be loud, where it needed to be silent. Where it was enraged, and where it grieved. There was an emotional rhythmic journey too, something more affective beneath its exploration of stories and people.
HG: As a writer myself, I’m always interested in the forms other writers use. I was especially interested in your poem “Echo, After Narcissus,” and how you’ve separated the poem into three parts. When you were first writing this poem, did you have this separation in mind or did that come later?
ML: Very rarely when I begin a poem, do I already have a form in mind. The poem tells me its form as I write. “Echo, After Narcissus” was an exception. I had read about the myth somewhere and suddenly found myself wanting to pursue a project where I literally depicted the transformation of Echo’s body and identity into just voice and echo, by writing in forms built of echoes. Thus, the ghazal, sestina, and pantoum.
This poem’s inception was so different from the other poems that it almost didn’t make it into the book. I thought it didn’t fit. But then I realized that it added an extra dimension to my exploration of the home, and the domestic, and gender violence, and the body, and identity (seems so obvious now, though it did not at the time!) in a way that departs from my usual staying so close to personal narrative and history. And so, I kept the poem.
HG: Were the many forms in your book inspired by any particular writers? What were your favorite forms to write in?
ML: As you can probably tell, I love forms with repetition. I love word play, and so any form that makes me use a word or phrase multiple times, in as many ways and tones as possible, is a fun and transgressive challenge. “Villanelle” was one particular challenge. Also an emotional one. Which is where traditional form may help the poet—it sort of “steers” the way for you.
“Writing Home” was also a fun one where I got to “invent” my own form. As I was writing, I was envisioning each section as a failed letter, almost like a physical balling up and throwing away of paper, self-interruptions and shoddy attempts at “writing home.”
And this is perhaps the most boring answer: I simply love free verse. It’s my favorite. I mentioned earlier that I let the poems form themselves as I write. I’m one of those poets that enjamb as I go, because the spacing on the page prompts me to propel the poem’s thinking further, to keep expanding instead of staying in one place or with one idea for too long. I use the line break as a tool.
HG: You use a lot of beautiful language and imagery in your poetry. “And the Thirst” and “Heavy Rain” were two of many in which you travel between two or three specific events to create an overarching feel of anxiety and melancholy. How did you go about choosing these specific events to place together? What strategies did you use to choose your words and metaphors?
ML: “And the Thirst” and “Heavy Rain” remain some of my longest poems to date, and they are also the ones that have gone through the most revision. With these zuihitsus, I took the original drafts and cut them up so each section was on their own strip of paper. I kept physically arranging and rearranging them. Now that I think about it, so much of writing this book was physical. It feels right somehow since this book is so bodily in images too.
I sometimes wrote more on other strips and added them when I realized I still had something more to say. The bodiless (?) poems prompted more questions. Sometimes I looked through my other writings and realized that something I had written somewhere else could also belong.
When I arranged, I looked for parallels and rifts. I looked for complication and contradiction. Sometimes strips merged when I realized the lines belonged closer together.
Similarly, the words and metaphors I choose must surprise me first. It’s the joy I have in writing poetry. I write to find something.
It’s interesting that you highlight these two poems in particular, because they also share something else in common. During both of their journeys in revision, both poems have been censored and then uncensored. “And the Thirst” and “Heavy Rain” get pretty close to the sexual trauma, which still scares me very badly to write about, so at one point I had cut the more explicit moments.
It was literally in the last month before the book went to print, when I had one last chance to get edits in, that I suddenly knew that I must do it, I must write it—and even more clearly than I had ever written it before. So, I wrote as closely as I could to it.
This book is still a very scary thing for me. Sometimes I can’t even look directly at it for too long, or I start to panic (Ah! To live with anxiety!). But in a way, I hope poetry remains this magically dangerous for me, to be honest, because this is one of the big reasons why I write: because my own poems have the possibility to affect even me.
HG: What does it look like when you revise a poem? Take “My Grandmother Puts on My Grandfather’s Sweater” for example, with its four line stanzas and use of white space, was it difficult keeping this specific form? Was there a lot of back and forth on where to position the white spaces within each stanza?
ML: I tend to keep all the drafts of a poem in one document, one right after the other. I do this in case I “over-revise” a poem or make changes that I dislike later—this way, I can always return to any earlier version. Also: sometimes when I return to old drafts, I see an image or question that didn’t make it into the final draft, and that may cue me into pursuing a new poem.
“My Grandmother Puts on My Grandfather’s Sweater” began as most of my poems do, with a cataloguing of thoughts. Sometimes this cataloguing and collecting extends for days before I sit down to put a draft together.
Excerpts from the first draft:
Make you warm
Make you sweat—in the name itself
Some have holes, abandon warmth and marry the wind. (Become an accessory?)
Abalone shell buttons, iridescent, cracked open from the bottom of the sea
Worn over something else
Hollow of a person
Largest hole for the torso
Holes for the head, for the arms—sleeves
knitted, ribbed, patterned
moves on you like a poltergeist
Warms at the touch
Seen as sophisticated
When washed and air dried, it becomes stiff, dries into the shape you meld it into
The death of a person—decomposing body versus the ribs on the sweater as skeleton
Poltergeist that mimes any shape you need it to be
In Taiwan, it could be the hottest summer, and people will still wear the most sophisticated sweaters, sweating in the heat, peeling them before ACs.
The lead unfinished in the pencil, drawing out
your arms from the sleeves, as you begin
to unravel in your coffin.
No, it’s a good thing we are all cremated in this family.
We all die in the hottest fire.
You have already been burned
The rattle magic of their first airplane, taking off into the night.
The astronaut suits at the World Fair in Osaka, strung up anchor heavy,
the diver pulls himself onto a beach with his sack of abalone shells.
That morning, he pulled on this sweater, still warm from the ironing board.
In the home video, in fast forward time, the people toddling forward on the screen almost comical.
Another minute passes and you are already burned. There should be no dream of decay.
And you wrap it around you now, still ribbed in his scent.
But this night is a night you can breathe in, thick with rain and stars.
Some of the things I’ve catalogued are pretty terrible (“makes you warm”), but I just needed to get myself going somehow. And some of them led to expansions (“moves on you like a poltergeist” struck me as weird, so I continued: “The death of a person—decomposing body versus the ribs on the sweater as skeleton/ Poltergeist that mimes any shape you need it to be”). I reorder these pieces many times; it’s usually during these juxtapositions and connections that I am cued to write more, and poem’s subject clarifies itself to me further.
As I write and revise, I read everything aloud to listen to rhythm. I break the poem apart into stanzas as I revise to encourage myself to edit the pace of the poem—where does it get too slow in that one thought takes up three whole stanzas as opposed to one, for example.
HG: Why is it that poetry became the medium you use to explore identity? Has writing been something you’ve used all your life? Are there other forms of medium that speak to you as well?
ML: Writing was actually something I hated when I was young, because it was tied to a painful assimilation—I was the first of my Taiwanese family to be born in the States, and when I started school I only knew Taiwanese and Mandarin (both of which I eventually lost as I slowly became fluent in English).
My first writing experiences were not empowering. I remember being asked to journal every day in the first grade, where journaling was defined as cataloguing my daily activities for one full page, on which I was to be graded upon. I did not have a fun time at school, and I did not have a fun time at home—childhood depression and anxiety is pretty early on for me—and I was not about to lay open my life to a stranger white teacher who did not recognize that a limited English proficient student would need additional resources to complete this assignment.
When I began writing for myself, it was as a form of escape from depression and bullying, first with fanfiction (shout out to my fellow fanfictioners!), and later—when I was finished with escaping and ready to interrogate—through poetry. I came to poetry with very little guidance (my school district did not require nor really provide poetry curriculum), so I created my own ways to play with language. From the get-go I was grappling with identity (Escapism? Interrogation? Anyone?), but I also think that sometimes as a queer writer of color, there is really no way to get around that.
I also wrote poetry because, simply put, it was accessible and affordable. My family did not struggle with money in ways I knew other families did, but we did still have to be careful with it. I loved painting, but supplies were costly and needed replenishing. I loved music, but music required instruments. I was in my elementary school band for two days (I am not exaggerating: two days), before realizing that renting a flute would cost too much to my parents, especially when a) I couldn’t figure out how to blow into it correctly to make sounds and b) I had social anxiety and hated being in close quarters with the other kids. Writing required paper and pen, and my mind—and I had plenty there.
(I think it’s important to remember that it was in part poetry’s accessibility and affordability that drew me to it because of the overwhelming desire to professionalize and capitalize on the craft. To be clear: I am grateful for my undergraduate and graduate education—my schooling helped provide the tools to finish this book, after all. But I also had forms of funding that are not provided to every writer. I think it’s important to fight against the rhetoric and the system that maintains a poet is more legitimate with degrees, etc., which is especially problematic when it’s not possible for a poet to support themselves on their poetry alone.)
Poetry is transgressive and can set your oppressors on edge with even the slightest thing: I remember turning in a piece of writing in the fifth grade that was supposed to be a “traditional” short story (as in: plot with a clear beginning, middle, end). Instead, I had gotten inexplicably obsessed halfway with questioning what happens to our mind and body when we are not quite awake yet. I literally wrote about waking up, and then going to the kitchen to open the fridge, when really what I had wanted to do was to go use the bathroom. I know this is silly: but in hindsight, I still think this introspection, this exploring of the liminal space between dream and waking, was perhaps the beginning of my poems, which all tend to straddle that line.
My teacher was so riled up by my piece that she called me up to the front of the class, read my writing out loud, and then asked if my parents let their children pee in the refrigerator, amidst the laughter of my classmates. My school thrived on a mixture of both old school and liberal racism, xenophobia, and ableism. I’ve had many a teacher and noon aid call me “retarded” because of my difficulty speaking English and also, apparently, writing ridiculous things that did not make sense (to them). I like to think that my teacher reacted that way because she was uncomfortable. I hope that my writing continues to make the right people uncomfortable.
And I hope that my writing continues to build community. Poetry may have begun as a solitary act for me, but it has helped me connect to so many brilliant poets and artists—and that is really what keeps me going now. It is a communal act in which we render the powerful and possible worlds that are already inside of us.
I kept that old journal from the first grade because of what happened to its pages later: my younger sisters and brother (annoyingly and yeah, probably, adorably) got ahold of it and practiced on it as they learned to write themselves. You could say it has become a personal artifact that traces my identity.
HG: Are there other projects that you’re working on at the moment? Do they carry the same themes of identity and family as this book does?
Since the release of A House Made of Water, I’ve focused on furthering the life of the book with my partner, Kazumi Chin (author of Having a Coke with Godzilla) through a collaborative book tour titled House of Godzilla that included interactive readings, multimedia performances, and free workshops. We were interested in the connections and rifts our collective work generated in regards to our differing queer and diasporic Asian-American identities. On the tour, we were incredibly lucky to connect and collab with poets like Chen Chen, Shelley Wong, Janice Sapigao, Lorenz Dumuk, Gabrielle Ralambo-Rajerison, Malcolm Friend, Ching-In Chen, Muriel Leung, Angela Peñarendondo, Melissa Sipin, Vanessa Angelica Villareal, and so so many more.
Post-MFA aka the last two years has been a time of great transitions for me. Admittedly, I have not tended to my own poetry in the same way I used to—I’ve since started volunteering and/or working full-time at several (phenomenal) POC-centered nonprofits that cultivate poetry and arts for radical social change, including Kearny Street Workshop and RYSE Youth Center. My work in nonprofits has focused more on development, fundraising, designing and facilitating arts programming. It has been an amazing and challenging time for me, but it also means that I’ve been focused more on community-building than my own poems.
I’m working on it though! I have a manuscript-in-progress tentatively titled The Year of the Horse is Dead. I would say yes: similar themes of identity and family run through this book (honestly, those themes run through my work in all areas of life), but I think this manuscript differs in that it offers a fuller picture (hopefully) of capitalist and racist systems that have a hand in forming identity and family.
I also want to quickly say: there are just so many rad poets & artists out there doing very amazing and necessary work, while struggling to support themselves. They’re trying to figure out how to not just survive, but how to thrive in their art and self-care. I want to give a shout-out to those poets, educators, art community organizers: I see you! You matter! When you thrive, your community thrives.
HG: A House Made of Water is filled with poems about anxiety, such as in “Trichotillomania,” “Cycles,” and “Settings;” about self and identity, in both “In the House Made of Water” poems and “Chink;” and about familial struggles, “My Mother as Mystique from X-Men” and “In Memoriam, A Memorandum.” Has writing about these subjects changed your relationship with yourself or your family?
ML: I’ve saved this question for last because it is a very hard question (perhaps the hardest?). A great deal of this book was written during a very difficult and unstable time in my life. And there was also a lot of writing that didn’t make it into this book, like more than seven years of writing and processing and thinking and making and remaking—I would say that all of that writing, taken together, is what affected my relationship with myself and with my family.
I had to write a lot of bad poems (I’m not just saying bad craft, I’m saying bad craft and bad thinking as in: misdirected, shallow, but all still so very valid) in order for these poems to eventually be written. But I had to write them. I had to write them first to get to the poems that ultimately became this book, and to get the person that I ultimately am today. But also, let’s be honest: good communities with good friends, lots of therapy and medications, also changed my relationship with myself and my family. Writing is powerful, but the people who survive and write are powerful first.
Michelle Lin is the author of A House Made of Water (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). Her latest poems can be found in Apogee, Dusie, and Asian American Literary Review. She has performed for Kearny Street Workshop’s APAture, Litquake, and other festivals. Her work was showcased in Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Lo Writer of the Week” and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s Public Poetry Project. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program and of University of California Riverside’s Creative Writing program, she is a Kundiman fellow.