Sylvia Chan is the author of We Remain Traditional, out from the Center for Literary Publishing in February 2018. She lives in Tucson, where she teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Arizona and serves as nonfiction editor for Entropy and court advocate for foster kids in Pima County.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
We Remain Traditional is my first book. I had been removed from it for three years, having finished it in a year and a half in 2013 and put it aside until I sent it out in 2016. I started teaching full time and committing myself to others who were bad for me—the people who are bound to me by blood and by kinship. At one point, I looked at myself in the mirror and asked why I was bailing one of my parents out of their problem again. I felt trapped because on the outside, I was okay; on the inside, I desired to be loved and cared for by my family. All of the first book compilation happened in my early twenties and today, I am still in my twenties, meaning I have processed the events of my first book for six years, and I am done with it.
My first book is only one part of the tradition out of which I come—foster care. Finding out that the first place to which I submitted my first book—I was like, how did this happen to me? I can do this; I am brave enough to write and speak my story. That is what I try to remember as I work on my current project, the foster care book. I understand the subject is ugly and pits me in a seemingly small demographic where few grow out of “the system” to matriculate out of high school, much less stay out of jail or kill or be killed because we could not fathom a bigger earth that includes us. The first book fortified my conviction in my voice and in my social justice.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was fortunate my best friend, my foster brother, read poetry to me. Stuff no ward of the state was expected to hear—Paul Celan, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez. And I grew to write songs and improvise them when I moved from classical to jazz piano. I’ve spent my life cultivating my musicality, which is the first step towards maneuvering my voice.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
In terms of product, I can generate. We Remain Traditional is almost intact from my MFA thesis. What slows me is the processing of my fears, traumas, memories, and experiences. It is important for me to put out the story I most need to speak. My drafts reflected this: I could see I wasn’t ready to let go, even of people who have wronged me. Which is fair: why shouldn’t I be allowed to admit I’m struggling with my writing because I’m struggling with my life? For closing in on drafts, it is about my willingness to let go. I am a writer who cranks out publishable material, but doesn’t publish until I’m ready.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I see the entire book from the beginning. I have no problem dispensing with strong poems which stand alone, that I can write well, but don’t belong in the book. Manuscript organization and section shifts are also easy for me. What trips me up are smaller and fluid transitions from poem to poem, especially minor but additive poems. Limited repetitions, e.g. moving poems around such that the pattern is one of obsession and not a waning of affect, and lack of parallelisms drive me crazy. Every poem does not have to be loud to do something to me as the writer, and hopefully, to you as the reader. Back to letting it go!
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am a private person unused to being asked how I’m doing; no, really, how I’m doing. Publicity is new. I enjoy conversations and speaking for others, which is what I do in education, editing, and literacy and court advocacy. It’s the fighting for myself that’s hard—I have to demonstrate a selfishness that feels wrong to uphold. Call it being unused to celebrating myself. I enjoy readings—it just feels like I’m renewing my skin each time, exposing myself as a writer reading her work.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Currently, I am preoccupied with two questions. One, how do we justify legal or uncontested murders? I am not talking necessarily on insidious acts such as lynching; I mean, legally, the plaintiff wins because they’ve followed their constitutional terms stronger than the defendant. And even though my heart is almost always with the victim and survivor, I see how the perpetrator made it “right” for them: they understand how to use the law to justify their means.
How do we pardon each other—how do we forgive our humanities? Perhaps I am too forgiving in believing every human has a soul. If I were to hate to the extent that I’m unable to forgive, I think I will have forgotten why I should write.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I hope to be a part of how poetry allows me to enact change: to make my specific and unique experiences new, to expose them so viscerally any reader will look at my words and allow a space for them. Sympathy and empathy are tall orders, and I understand not everyone will exhibit the compassion I practice and live. I don’t want or expect that for all writers. But to write, that means you acknowledge your responsibility as to what your voice stands for. A writer needs to be frank, unafraid, different, and powerful. They can’t hide. They can’t denigrate. If a writer puts down other writers to make their points, they will be found.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors fight for your voice to be heard. I like being left alone and then, at the intuitive times, being asked, Hey, where’s that draft? Headshot? Hello, can you let me know you’re okay? I like being reminded it’s okay for me to be human and be slow at logistics, or even to sift through my poetry so I can trust in it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I think about what I want my daughter to read and to know about her genealogy. If I am not here to tell her, what do I want to leave behind for her to read as she grows up?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to piano)? What do you see as the appeal?
I was a pianist first so I play piano and write interchangeably. A writing day means sitting at the piano and playing out my poems. I’m not talking about strict lines, what it looks like on the computer screen. Pen, paper, and my musical ear are all that matters because I’m trying to sound out my poems. If I’m not comfortable with how they sound, in the beauty and pity and ugliness and compassion, how can I expect my listeners and readers to follow me?
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Ideally, I aim to write on my non-work or non-teaching days, which is five. Five! Realistically, I spend my days off serving as a court advocate for foster kids: real time interacting with legal, educational, placement, and behavioral health services; hanging out with the child for whom I’m legally appointed to fight; writing court entries and reports; processing what is the best interest of the child. Although I’ve never wanted to be a lawyer, legal advocacy has always been something I wanted to do, and I think it strengthens my writing in the way the rest of my life sustains my art: my self-care is fighting for foster children because that is my subject. Serving in non-profits is not enough for me: I want to return to the courtroom. I want to be a part of enacting some legal change, no matter how small, slow, and enduring.
I try to write an hour or two from 6-9 a.m. My “break” is doing all my court advocacy: consolidating my case notes, calling different parties, driving to these parties. Without thinking about it, the time it takes for me to complete court duties is a form of processing—I’ve done so much mental work by the time I’m back at the piano, I know what is the next step. I reserve organization and rearrangements, and sometimes revision, for the ends of the day: the late school nights when I’m too tired to create new work, but not tired enough to stop re-envisioning my work.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday. Backwater blues. Hip hop and intersections of hip hop and popular music, like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. Unapologetic voices.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Tamarind. Hong Kong milk tea. Cigar and menthol cigarette smoke.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Jazz music, especially Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. Their precisions are instrumental, intuitive, addictive, political: they are aligned with showcasing human vulnerability and intimacy.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Some have not changed over the years: Celan, Jordan, and Sanchez are still my go-tos. Nawal El-Saadawi, David Mitchell, James Baldwin, Alice Notley, Jesmyn Ward, Ta-nehisi Coates, Ronaldo Wilson. Justin Chin and Stacy Doris. I confess I read more novels than poetry, and I read nonfiction because it is easier for me to read essays when thinking about my poetry. Publishing nonfiction for Entropy has helped me recognize my editorial voice: I see how to edit the most confessional voices—not to tone down or strip away, but to focus on the parts that really need to be seen by our community. Unsurprisingly, this has helped me work through my poetry: these genres are aligned in that they’re always asking for the writer’s reinvention. And, on that end, I am able to write one or two essays when I don’t want to confine my truths to a poem, which is limited—an essay allows for the entirety of one’s truths. I cannot say how much being an editor has allowed me to confront and to choose the distance necessary for all my work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to be behind a transition program for foster kids going to college. Like, let’s say you’re moving to the dorms. How do you buy bedsheets when you’ve owned a trash bag with all your belongings up to that point? What about self-care, including a space where you can meet other foster kids and talk about what makes you different without feeling like you’re outside because you’ve lived a different life? If I can be more than the 3% of foster kids who graduate from college, and see other faces that are not my own, I feel I’d validate my path to success. I don’t want it to be just me at the end; this earth has to allow much more.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Surprise surprise, I think I would enjoy the limits and idealisms in child welfare or at least social work. It makes me livid when I follow The San Francisco Chronicle’s investigation on “Fostering Failure” or the Arizona Republic’s “Why are kids taken away?” The foster care system is rife with so many flawed human beings: it’s easy to blame Child Protective Services; to fault behavioral health services for changing therapists because they didn’t want to talk about suicide ideation; to call foster and kinship placements “bad people;” to give up.
I have the stomach and the heart for it. And maybe that’s why being a writer along with my day job as an educator and my service as a court advocate works—I’m happy to be living the life I believe.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I tried piano performance and although I was talented, I knew very early, I wouldn’t go beyond improvisation and performance because my interests and motivations had shifted: I didn’t want to study it. Deep down inside, I think I pride myself on being an inquisitive and imaginative writer despite my history of not being in school, dropping out of school, and all these things that made it harder to sustain a consistent semblance at literacy—and I never saw it that way. I told myself, education is the way out of the system. The only person responsible for that is me. I devise my fate. I will put myself through school on my own terms, and after that, I will speak. I’m proud of my courage.
Ander Monson, one of my mentors, told me it is those who live through remarkable tragedies who become more interesting people, and on that end, more unique writers, because they do not act for the sake of writing; they write simply because they are brave in facing their truths. I was sitting in front of him ready to declare I’m quitting poetry, which I think he knew. He’s right. Some of writers I know do things so they have something to write about, as though writing is the purpose and not living. That is fine if that works for them. For me, I try to just live, and regardless of how much I believe myself to be an artist, I’m also comfortable with letting that go. If, one day, I want to curate my passion for writing into a greater form of legal advocacy in child welfare, for instance—just as I’ve cultivated piano into poetry—I think I’ll still be happy.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m rereading Alice Notley’s In the Pines. I love such an abandon for what matters to everybody else; she does not care whether you find her language impulsive and demanding, or justified as the crazy woman for her grief. Notley writes for the processing of her grief, of her beloved, of her body. She reinvents one of my favorite forms, the haibun. I don’t watch movies; I have an “accommodative eye focusing” problem, which sounds ridiculous until I’m disoriented from watching five minutes of characters dance across the screen.
20 - What are you currently working on?
My second book is After Every Pardon. It is unfinished. I can finish right now, if I want. But my filtering of the events, the people, the traumas, the memories, the addictions, the loves—those are more important. Because I am writing the people who are no longer with me on this earth, I am bound to honor their memories by writing the most truthful version of our stories. Which is not what poetry aims to do—as readers, we don’t look for every single truth; we look for the allure, for the bit of misgiving, inaccuracy, or even fabrication permitted in making words poetic.
As someone who does not lie in real life—excepting who drank all the coffee, whom I always blame the cat—I struggle with not telling every truth. I don’t know how to lie! And I’m adverse to lying: I didn’t end up in foster care because my parents were truthful beings. So I’m rethinking, rewriting, and re-envisioning how I can honor my loved ones and myself without being compelled to do something I don’t stand for. This earth will be ready for my next book when I’m ready.