This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008).
H. L. Hix: In the first few lines of the first poem, the word “unctuous” appears; the final section of the book is “A Move to Unction.” What about unction makes it important to these poems?
Jennifer Chang: I wrote the title poem, “The History of Anonymity” roughly three years after writing “A Move to Unction.” At first, I hadn’t intended to put the poems in the same manuscript, but as I revised “The History of Anonymity” I realized that both lyric sequences are preoccupied with the process of emotional and existential recovery and both express an almost spiritual fervor. I settled on the word “unction” because of its religious and sacred connotations, but I wanted a secularized “unction,” which I hope in my poems connotes a state of heightened attention that enables healing and restorative contemplation.
I also realized that to put two long lyric sequences in one book would be challenging, so when I was revising “The History of Anonymity” I decided that the language had to work harder for the poems to connect to each other. I used “unctuous” because it anticipates the “unction” of the book’s conclusion, but unlike “unction,” the word “unctuous,” as a descriptor is more tactile and sensual. If we think of the shift from the words “unctuous” to “unction” as a sort of miniscule drama or narrative arc within the book, it could suggest a shift from the bodied to the disembodied, the material to the spiritual.
HH: The speaker in “And the night illuminated the night” uses the term “dark curiosity” (47) to refer to the “you” of the poem. Would you agree with me that the term could be reflected back on the speaker and that the poems in this book arise out of a dark curiosity? If so, what would you be taking “dark curiosity” to mean?
JC: In that poem, “dark curiosity” figures as a guide; it is “dark curiosity” that leads the “you” to the forest, to the unknown. I suppose that’s an apt description of my own approach to writing the poems of The History of Anonymity. Or any poem. For me, every poem begins as—and, I hope, enacts—a process of inquiry. As with the “dark curiosity” of “And the night illuminated the night,” I am led by the dark curiosity of my question(s), of the unknown answer or resolution that I seek to make knowable. Dark curiosity, I think, is integral to any artistic or intellectual process, any inquiry, but I think in the phrase itself there’s also the suggestion of one’s attraction to the unknown, the attraction to the act of questioning itself.
HH: The sister is a strong presence, and also a “strong absence,” in the last section. So the speaker’s writing postcards and then tossing them off the cliff (59) seems a pivotal moment in the sequence. Is it also in some sense a representation more generally of the situation of the poet.
JC: In working on a first book of poems I often felt like I was writing to an audience of no one. In a sense, I was writing poems and tossing them off the cliff. That’s the great suspense of the young writer, isn’t it? Whether or not there will be a reader. Will anyone want to read what I’ve written? Will anyone care? Will anyone respond, write back? I remember feeling a powerful loneliness while writing the poems of The History of Anonymity—that sounds odd, I know, but if no one is paying attention, then you feel like you can do anything, that you can get away with anything. I don’t know if the lack of an audience or the fear of never having either a book or a reader constituted a “strong absence” at the time; there was certainly an absence, but I largely ignored it then and I still try to ignore it. If I gave too much credence to the absences surrounding my writing and my poems, then, like the speaker of that last section, I’d have to run away from everything and everyone.
That said, I’m not inclined to think of the situation of the poet as especially unique or distinct from the situation of any human being. A poet’s questions are hardly different from anyone else’s. What does it mean to be free? How am I responsible to others, to the world? Who am I? How one answers these universal questions informs how one lives. They are questions not just of poets but of all human beings. If there’s a difference in a situation of the poet, then, I think, it’s only in the difference of orientation. Poets—or certainly the vast majority of poets, myself included—are above all language-oriented; my attention is skewed towards what words do to experience in rendering experience, how words express, mediate and interrogate our place in the world. Others, I believe, manage their experiences, ask their questions, through different orientations or foci.
Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, The Nation, A Public Space, The Rumpus and Best American Poetry 2012 and she has reviewed poetry for The Believer, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books and Virginia Quarterly Review. She co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman and is an assistant professor of English at Bowling Green State University.