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Adrienne Chung talks to Christine Marella about poetry process, playlists for writing, and self as a collaborative production

Adrienne Chung is a winner of the 2022 National Poetry Series. Her debut collection, Organs of Little Importance, is out from Penguin Books.

Christine and Adrienne correspond via email over five weeks, with Christine mostly in New York City, and Adrienne mostly in Berlin.

Adrienne Chung: I often wish I were a musician [instead of a poet]. I'm envious of the immersive, three-dimensional nature of music versus the visual flatness of text, of words on a page. I know it's a wildly reductive thing to say, and that there's all this interior world-building that happens in our heads as we read, but it isn't physically immersive, you know? Sensory inputs aren't coming from all sides like they do with sound.

Marshall McLuhan makes a distinction between acoustic and Euclidean space, where the former is all-encompassing and simultaneous, the latter lineal and ordered. The experience of the written word can never exist acoustically in that sense. The obvious counterpoint would be live readings, but what usually happens during a reading is I'll zone out for most of it and then catch onto a phrase or two and turn it over and over in my head, like a rotisserie chicken –– or a döner, or gyro (which actually take their names from the Turkish and Greek words, respectively, for "to turn"). I may have just semi-invalidated my own point here. What I'm saying is I love meat cooked on a rotational spit and I wish my poems could be like that.

Christine Marella:
That reminds me of how people are always talking about the nutritive qualities of poetry. And while I agree with them –– yes, it feeds the soul, etc. ––  I’ll borrow your words to argue that like rotisserie chicken, other more sensorily encompassing art, like music, encourages longer lasting hits of dopamine than poems. (Not that dopamine spikes are how we value art… though the two must be highly tied. Maybe we have a dissertation topic here.) Whereas the greatest pleasure one experiences from a poem is often caused by its very first read! And you can’t repeat first reads the way you can repeat a great song. How that fact positions poetry in a free market economy is also… something… but perhaps a conversation for another time. Anyway, you’re currently based in Berlin. I live in New York right now and find the city to be one of my main creative collaborators. I’m wondering how Berlin has affected your writing since you moved?

AC: My experience is different in that I extract equal, if not greater, pleasure out of a poem from each successive read. The more I get to know a poem, the more I realize that there's still more to know, more interior angles from which to approach and refract. There will always be some part of me that is newly encountering an old poem.

I haven't been writing much here so I can't answer that question, but Berlin has certainly influenced the books I read and the media I consume, which have become, broadly, less American and more literature in translation, less big five publisher and more independent press. State funding for the arts and humanities in Europe is generous and allows for more experimental, fringe organizations to stay afloat, and encourages and economically supports non-commercial creative production. I would imagine that anyone coming here from the US would feel freer to take risks in their work, and actually pursue them to completion. I've also been nursing a growing interest in writing for performance, something I rarely thought about until I moved here. Theater is supposedly more central to the artistic life of German-speaking countries than anywhere else in the world. It's palpable.

Just tell me I’m a lazy reader! I’m kidding. Maybe I’m being cynical. There are three books of poetry I've been reading over and over for the last 10 months, almost religiously. Why? Surely because I find pleasure in each successive encounter, like you said. But that's me! Privately I consider this pleasure anomalous –– maybe not among poets, but certainly for non-poets.

Don’t you find that other people would much rather listen to an album or watch a film ad nauseam than repeat-read a collection of poems? I wonder if poets are the only ones who draw pleasure from poetry the way we do, and with such intensity. And if that’s true, perhaps it’s because we’re able to access poetry in a way non-poets don't –– not because we’re special, but because we care a lot. I sometimes feel like no poem could convince someone who is determined not to care about poetry to care about poetry. Music, though, music is so much more persuasive, almost relentlessly persuasive. It takes hold of your shoulders and shakes you within an inch of your life! I do think, however, a poem can catch someone off guard –– someone who didn’t know they could like or care about poetry. But they have to be open.

I've never expressed any doubts about the ability of poetry before, not publicly. If it's not apparent, I'm feeling rather lackluster today. Maybe I need to reconvene with my poet friends, who I've gone a few months without seeing.

I'm going to switch over to our second line of conversation: let's say you received a state grant –– would performance writing be the next creative project you took on? Or even better, what would you work on if the funding was there and you weren't worried about any kind of commercial reception?

AC: Much of that is a matter of marketing, though. Poetry isn't pushed onto consumers like other genres of literature are, much less music or film. People generally don't think of a poetry collection when they think of "curling up on the couch with a good book" or when they're shopping for a "beach read." They either never think about poetry at all or think it's too deep, too cerebral. The space that poetry occupies in the public imagination is extremely bifurcated: it's either hyperintellectual and pretentious, or a complete non-entity.

The reality is that the poetry shelf has plenty of feel-good, easy reads. It's got beach reads, guilty pleasure reads, sexy reads, nonfiction reads. Poetry is a lot more accessible and varied than its reputation suggests, and best of all, poems are short. You can finish a poetry collection in a day. From one lazy reader to another.

As for speculative funding scenarios, I actually just submitted a proposal to a residency in Sweden to write a science fiction novella. I probably wouldn't do that in the US. 

You dropped the mic there, all brilliant, true points. I am always wondering what action might be taken to ameliorate wider misconceptions about poetry. Perhaps for now we just continue loving it, and doing so publicly –– the most benign of conversion tactics, I think.

I hope you receive the residency, because I want to read that novella. What does a day in the writing life look like for you during a residency? I know my response to this question would produce two wildly different answers: my ideal day vs a realistic day.

Also are you a caffeinated writer? A listen-to-music-in-the-background writer? Do you write alongside other books?

AC: My brain doesn't turn on until 3pm and that's only my left brain. Then it turns off and my right brain wakes up at 9pm. I'm not a creature of habit, so I just try to fit the day's work somewhere into the designated brain space. 

I'm less adaptable with working conditions. I like to work in private, at home, on a table with a big surface area. Small work tables make me claustrophobic. I typically rotate the stack of books on my desk, but right now it's just John Ashbery's
Selected Poems. The rest are in storage in Madison, sleeping.

For music, I work best to a playlist that's mostly Toumani Diabeté's
New Ancient Strings and Glenn Gould's recording of The Well-Tempered Claviar, played through a small Sonos speaker that's followed me through four moves over ten years. No coffee because I work so late, but a big pot of barley tea that I refill continuously. And I can't work on an empty stomach, because then I just think about food the whole time.

A central interest at Knife Room is collaboration. Through a collaborative lens, a person could claim anyone whose work you write alongside or music you listen to while writing is a kind of collaborator (or conspirator!). Does that feel true to you? How else might you see collaboration at play in your work, or in your life?

AC: That there exists a lens through which I can claim two of Mali's foremost kora players and the greatest interpreter of Bach as my collaborators is the best news I've heard all week! No, I don't think I can seriously claim that, but the music I listen to as I write does influence the work I produce, and it does stoke some sort of primordial, creative energy in me that doesn't burn on its own. I like working to music that's rhythmic, melodic, and somewhat fast, and the instrumentation has to have a clear timbre. I want my poems to be undergirded by clarity and kinesis, and the music has to encourage that. While I love drone and ambient music, it's the last thing I could ever write to. William Basinski is not my co-conspirator, sadly.

Something I think about often is: what would my poems look like if they were paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations? What would they sound like if they were music? How would they move if they were film? Inherent in that question is a question of identity and other possible worlds i.e. how would I be different if my mode of expression were a different medium? I think collaboration is a way to explore those other possible worlds.

You just said something that struck me: “how would I be different if my mode of expression were a different medium?” Like, yes, it is possible you wouldn’t be
you if you were not a writer. I’d never considered that before. I’d never thought that the essence of the “I” would, or could, really change. The idea of difference seems obvious when thinking about other people, but not obvious in terms of oneself. I suppose the self is a collaborative production, too, especially for an artist, with their art.

AC: I love the idea of the self as collaborative production. In that sense, it isn't difficult for me to imagine my identity and selfhood were I not a writer, simply because I wasn't one for most of my life, not until I went back to college in my thirties to finish my undergraduate degree. I think it's those various non-writer selves that comprise the majority of my writing identity.

CM: What was it that made you want to take up writing? And at what point did you think you might ever have a book? Did you even want one?

AC: I always liked poetry, but it was never something I thought I could pursue seriously. There were no writers around me growing up, and still none in the eras of my life that followed; if there were, I didn't have the cultural literacy to parse that identity. I had no idea how one went about becoming a writer, or that it was even a vocation.

What I did know was how to become a doctor, which somehow required violin or piano lessons starting at age eight. A friend of mine recently gave an interview where she describes this particular Asian-American frame of reference as the product of "ingrained cultural prejudices and systemic inequities that do not relegate meaningful creative pursuits to certain classes of immigrant communities," which is an incredible articulation. Writing simply wasn't an option. I don't remember exactly how I found out about this thing called the MFA, but I do remember the panic of sending off applications that fall, with minutes to spare. The last thing I expected from all of this was a book.

CM: I also grew up knowing no other writers, so I feel a kinship with what you said. I, personally, sought out an MFA to find them. Both of my parents had engineering backgrounds, and in Silicon Valley, so did everyone else. Looking around, especially at the Asian kids growing up first generation (which I did not), with their parents directing them to violin practice then on to medical, law, or engineering school... it's a miracle I was able to want what I wanted –– even if it was different. I'm glad both of us did, and do. 

Funny you mention knowing only how to become a doctor, since the title of your collection at first seems very much to do with the human body: Organs of Little Importance. A closer look reveals that these are metaphorical organs: our apparently useless "compulsions, superstitions, errant thoughts, and other selves."

In a world obsessed with optimization and objectivity –– which are distinctly masculine values –– the designation of “uselessness” is so beautiful to me. It is subversive, it balks at the pressure placed on every hour, thing, and feeling to produce. I think magic is allowed to bubble up out of the useless. Wisdom certainly does. At least I believe it does.

AC: I've been waiting my whole life to thank an interviewer for their "generous reading of my work," so thank you for that. I hadn't considered the subversive angle to the title, which invokes a sort of manic pixie, Bartleby-esque passive resistance that, I think, captures the spirit of the collection: I would prefer not to forget this memory which haunts me. I would prefer not to release this person who hurts me. I would prefer not to leave my delusions, hallucinations, and delirious fantasies behind me. They’re mine to keep.

Adrienne Chung is the author of Organs of Little Importance (Penguin 2023), a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her work has been published in The Yale Review, Joyland, Recliner, and elsewhere. A recipient of grants and fellowships from MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, she holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from UW-Madison. Based in Berlin, she teaches at the Berlin Writers' Workshop and is a poetry editor at SAND Journal. 

Christine Marella is the founding editor of Knife Room Poetry. Her recent work appears in American Chordata, Dialogist, Volume Poetry, and Copenhagen. Born in California, she lives in New York City.

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