I met Michael Chang through an online workshop in hybrid forms taught by Hanif Abdurraqib. It was 2020, and though I didn’t know Chang’s work yet, I was thrilled to be introduced to poems with titles like “Pink Stegosaurus” and “Sean * Lennon.” That Chang was only partially visible on my screen added to their mystique – their laptop camera stood aimed at the very top of their head and the wall, a kind of teasing refusal. In retrospect, this seems apt, since the poet’s speakers are so often wise-asses and provocateurs, fun-loving lovers who dare us to care about them.
In the relatively short period since that time, Chang has accumulated a dizzying array of awards, recognitions, and kudos. Last year Chang was awarded the Poetry Project’s prestigious Brannan Prize, and they were tapped to edit Lambda Literary’s Emerge anthology. Their admirers read like a who’s who of today’s queer literati, among them Richard Blanco, Randall Mann, Aaron Smith, Bruce Snider, and TC Tolbert.
Despite this steamy embrace from the establishment, Chang remains committed to bringing their poetry to audiences beyond the expected literary crowd. Their collections’ titles alone— Boyfriend Perspective, Chinatown Romeo, and the forthcoming Almanac of Useless Talents and Synthetic Jungle—speak to Chang’s insistence on blowing up established ideas of what “serious” poetry can look like.
Chang and I spoke via Zoom, spending three hours together one autumn morning, they in their apartment in Brooklyn, me at home in New Mexico. Our conversation ranged from poetry as performance to fashion forecasting to creating friction on the page.
The Rumpus: Your poems have an unusual cultural sophistication. Your speaker says, in essence, “I’m just materialistic and fuck everybody, and PS, I look great.” I really enjoy the badassery. It’s part of what makes them fresh.
Michael Chang: That’s an interesting way of putting it, yeah. I made a conscious choice not to write about those topics that other writers like to write about. Even in queer storytelling or whatever you want to call it, there’s a reflex or a tendency to write a sad poem in a way that’s not that original. I like to write from a position of strength.
I’m just so irritated by poems that reinforce the notion that, for example, Chinese people run your restaurants and do your laundry. I’m working on an immigration poem from the lens of my legal training and access to courts and access to justice. It’s about a case on the border, where a border agent killed someone across the border, and our courts were closed to that family. People think it’s so easy to win a case like that, but it’s not. It depends on who you are and what claims you’re making against the state.
So, in terms of the immigration poem, that was where I took it.
Rumpus: Your pacing and speed mirrors the speed we’re living with right now. Yet even in your most playful work, there is this undercurrent of seriousness, and it’s personal too.
Chang: There’s something that I learned when I was clerking for two federal judges. It seems from the outside like judges live in a bubble, but they don’t. A lot of the stuff about marriage equality or trans rights, a lot of that, I think, moves ahead because while judges have lifetime appointments, they realize that we live in a society that is moving forward. They know they have to be responsive to evolving community standards.
For me, meeting the moment is key. Has what you’re putting out been done before? Are you moving poetry forward? For me, that’s important, because if you’re doing something that people have seen before, it’s not surprising. I don’t really bother with that in my practice. So yeah, the speed of things is key.
In a workshop I said to someone, “I think I know what you’re doing, which is you’re trying to step out of writing the same three to five poems.” And a lot of people were very outraged that I said that.[But] the person receiving the feedback was very grateful. I was lauding their effort to branch out a little. It’s so important to me, instead of saying, “Oh, that isn’t quite working, that isn’t like your other stuff.” Instead I want to ask why it has to be like your other stuff.
It’s hard for me to judge my own work. I think thematically I have things I write about, but I try not to have it sound the same, even within a collection.
Rumpus: Your narrators tend to be very confident. They can be demanding. They’re asserting that the world is like that and not like this. But beneath that are openings of vulnerability and there’s a tension between the assertions and the vulnerability. The person who is demanding is also wanting. In the poem “遇见 ENCOUNTER,” there’s this sense early on that the speaker is in love. Or thinking that they might be.
You write, “These days it is hard to remain hopeful,” and, “I will never shake this feeling of fraudulence, of insufficiency.” And there’s this idea again of feelings for this person who’s being addressed. “I want your husk,” you write, “your honey trap, your cutlet pounded thin as paper.” The lines are very Michael Chang, but they’re also very vulnerable. There’s this tender heart at the center of it.
Chang: I guess it’s a reflection of how people actually are. There’s the bluster. You’re performing, and there are these roles. The portrayals are an attempt to drive at the complexities of that.
I say in one of the poems that straight men are very pathetic and lonely. And turning on the TV or listening to music, I don’t think you would arrive at that conclusion given the way male-identifying people are presented. I think part of that poem was informed by my experience witnessing politicians in public and in private, that flip.
Rumpus: The performance versus the soul inside.
Chang: I’m not placing value judgments on which is better or preferable. It’s just a statement of how people are. A more richly textured view of how people are.
Of course, there’s the longing and the romance, the more tender moments you’ve reacted to or mentioned, there’s definitely that. And in the romance there’s a notion of which self are you presenting. That bumps up against people’s expectations and desires of you or for you.
You said tension. Tension is a good word. I think, too, there’s friction.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you talk about performativeness with politicians, because I think there is a performative element of your work. Do you feel like you’ve incorporated that muscle politicians have in excess to some degree as a poet?
Chang: The short answer is yes. I like the performance in a playful way. As a part of banter. I don’t like to take things very seriously. Having worked in politics, we’re talking about life and death and very serious issues, but in a way that is approachable or relatable, and I try to incorporate elements of that in my own work.
Even if you’ve never been to Asia or if you’ve never done this or that, hopefully you take something away from my telling you that. I think in terms of the performance piece of it, a lot of politicians enjoy that part of the job and not the other parts. They like the pomp and circumstance.
In my own practice, I see it as giving the people what they want. I think people want or are receptive to happy poems. I read sad poems, but I think people want something that is intimate and human and hopeful. A happy hopefulness? A happy warrior, where we are fighting for certain things or rights or movements or whatever—take your pick—but this notion that we can do it and have fun. We don’t have to all burn down the police station. Not that that’s not important, too.
Rumpus: I see a lot of different personas at work in your poems. The personas are in the poems, speakers who resemble each other on the page. And then there’s you, the poet. And maybe part of your objection, if you will, to what some other poets are doing is a response to how they’re situating themselves. Maybe instead of an objection to the poets themselves, your objection is to this idea that as a poet you have to fit a certain persona or that your work has to fit within the spectrum of what’s permissible.
Chang: I think it depends on whether you think the speakers in the poems are similar to each other, the same, or me. It depends as you go through the collection, if a reader thinks the speakers are always me.
Rumpus: That would be weird, to think all the speakers were you, Michael, the person. Wouldn’t it?
Chang: I don’t think there’s a right answer. I mean, there are wrong answers, but I don’t think there’s a right answer.
This goes back to what I was saying about writers not evolving. It’s like, why are you writing about the same topics? I think about it in terms of the standards for reopening [legal] cases. There’s no new information, so why are we going down the same path? And with a lot of these books there’s nothing new, no fresh DNA evidence. So why are we going through this dance again?
Rumpus: What are some other ways that you impose evolution on your work?
Chang: I think part of it is being interested in what other people are doing. I read a lot and look at what other people are writing. Then when I see things I think are interesting, I think about how I would do it. Like if I wanted to write about desire, which everybody writes about, how can I do it in a way that’s true to me, and in a way that only I could write? I think that’s really important.
So the way maybe I would approach it is, I’ll read a million love poems, and then I’ll come up with what I think my version of a love poem is. It’s like if you were making a little black dress. Everybody’s conception of that would be different. I’d want to make the version that my muse would want to wear.
Rumpus: In your poems, I feel the active rejection of being something the speaker’s lover or friend wants them to be: “I need to reject what you’re putting on me, what you’re assuming I am.”
Maybe it’s not all or nothing, but how much you respond to established appetites.
Chang: Yeah, we’ve seen that in publishing forever. “Just write more of this type of poem and less of…” I tell students all the time that it doesn’t matter that you haven’t seen work like yours published. It’s probably a good thing. You shouldn’t feel like you need to play that up or play it down, or play particular parts of your biography or your experience for the sake of eyeballs.
Even some very, very accomplished poets fall prey to this trap. You can write about queer stuff and race stuff, but not X, Y, Z topics. Regardless of how accomplished somebody is. I mean, even the President answers to somebody. But as the artist, you can’t just roll over.
I think my perspective comes from a sense of obligation that you have to speak up and do what you can in that moment with the power that you have to push back.
Rumpus: Is that what keeps you going back to your poems?
Chang: I like writing because I think people are interested in hearing what I have to say. And I’m very lucky that people actually read my stuff. I feel very grateful for that.
People write to me and say “Oh, I read your poem and it made me …” You know, jump start my work after a period of not writing or whatever. That makes me feel good about what I’m putting out, probably more than awards. Those are real impacts. If it helps somebody along in their own practice, that’s very rewarding for me, and that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.
I don’t really answer questions about the intentions of my poems. I don’t think that’s really productive. I think what’s important is readers’ individual takeaways from my work. And that’s up to them. I’m just happy that people actually read my work and have a different reaction to it. I wouldn’t want a whole room of people to read my stuff and have the same response.
Rumpus: You were talking about endings. How do you know when you have the ending you want?
Chang: One trick I tell students is that when you’re done, go up one or two stanzas and cut the last two or three. Or move stuff around. I say that a lot. Or maybe the first line should be the last. Or I’ve told students to write the last line first and work backwards. Use different ways of playing with time and space.
The reason I came up with the working backwards exercise was because that’s truly representative of my process. I decide, “Okay, I want anger.” And I work backwards from there. I was working on something today, and the last line is something like, “I didn’t know I needed approval till you withheld it.” I wanted that feeling. And so I worked backwards.
Rumpus: Is your process fun? Hearing you talk about it, it sounds fun.
Chang: I think so. I have fun doing it. The actual writing is fun.
I don’t revise a lot. The poems come out pretty much fully formed, the way they look on the page. I might play around with them and usually I do. But in terms of making the words do the work I want them to do, that comes pretty easily.
I don’t believe in free writes. I hate that. I think the reason my poems come out pretty much done is because I think about them before I actually do any writing. So the mechanics of putting the words down is easy because a lot of the conceptualizing and a lot of the research is already prepped.
I don’t outline, but I do think through the parts of the machine, or whatever the metaphor is. The various components of it, I think through and then I put them on the page. I know a lot of professors tell you to free write and then pick from the scraps. But I don’t know, I’m more deliberative about where I want to go with stuff. I don’t believe in saving scraps, at least for poems. I don’t know about other genres, but I don’t ever have a line like, “Oh, this line is really catchy, but it doesn’t work here, let me save it for the next one.” Every poem is a closed universe. If it wasn’t good enough to make it into the poem, then it’s not good enough, period.
Rumpus: Sometimes when you’re talking I hear the speaker I’ve met on the page in your poems. They’re like, “Shit is like this.”
You’ve talked about making poetry as an analog to fashion. What is fashion to you and how does it relate to your work?
Chang: I think writing is similar to fashion in that, in some way, it’s all been done before. So it’s a matter of configuration. My designer friend was saying, in terms of making the perfect khaki or short or pant, there’s always something to tweak: a different button, or maybe the length of the short is different. That part of it is fun. The innovation is really important to me. I guess that’s why I keep making poetry. I arrange and combine pieces, elements, and techniques to evoke feeling in a reader. One way that I try to do that is to take very disparate and dissimilar references and configure them in a way that is evocative and is maybe a nod to some sort of heritage or past. But also proposing a way forward.
That’s where point of view comes in. I want to see glimpses or shadows or slivers of heritage, but also a clear and definitive path forward. So in that sense, I think pulling references from different places and really studying what came before is important. A lot of good fashion designers are very well-versed in the history of what they do, and that informs their work.
Another part of fashion that’s appealing to me is they’re operating two or three cycles ahead of the calendar. There’s forecasting. I may say, “This is how things are,” but I know that they aren’t really. But I’d like them to be down the line. That kind of aspirational forecasting is also very appealing to me.
Rumpus: Can you say some more about the narrator and the persona and you, and how they’re meeting up on the page? Where are you in that moment of making a poem? Where are you and where is the speaker in that process?
Chang: I think they’re very good or best friends. I can guess how they would respond or react to a particular scenario. Or I can envision or fashion what they would say. But there isn’t certainty. But they are—and this is further along that I’ve gone with any other explanation—they are best friends and there is a degree of comfort and familiarity between them. But there’s still some guesswork involved. I think that keeps it interesting. Like when you’ve been with someone for a long time. You can anticipate their reactions, but then sometimes they surprise you.
Rumpus: Do the speakers surprise you? I feel that. Sometimes that’s where humor’s coming from.
Chang: It keeps things interesting if they do surprise you. There are these complexities that you can still unpack even if you’ve known someone for a very long time. I think surprise is good. I try to carry that through the work.
Rumpus: You’ve said you see your role as an artist in enlarging the audience for poetry. As I see it, with your work and your stance on promoting accessibility, you’re creating more doors. I’m curious to hear more about that.
Chang: There was a review of Boyfriend Perspective that talked about me being a poet’s poet. That was fun, but I want to be everyone’s poet.
That got me thinking about this bigger audience question. A lot of my friends who teach freshman comp or whatever like to assign my work because their students find my work less daunting. It’s more approachable. One of the values I try to make sure is present is this sense of relatability and ease of getting into the material. That’s ever-present for me. And that of course has nothing to do with dumbing down or whatever. But using humor as a vehicle or using these different ways of being seductive. I want to get you interested.
Rumpus: Not all literature is attractive in that way. Your work has a feeling of avant-garde-ness, and you know how to get our attention. You’re this enfant terrible. You’re saying, “I’m gonna shake up your art world.” Do you see yourself that way? Do you think the avant-garde even exists anymore?
Chang: A very well-respected Asian poet called me “the bad boy of poetry.” That was so funny to me for so many reasons. But when she said that, I thought, it’s such a difficult line to toe because you have to be somewhat establishment to be taken seriously, but you don’t want to be co-opted. I think I’m straddling that line of anti-establishment establishment. However you formulate that.