Bridget Talone: At the POPULAR issue launch & reading, one thing that connected the pieces for me was a kind of resistance to or rejection of whatever the word popular stands for. You & I talked about being interested in earlier No, Dear themes–VIOLENCE in particular. I think of both of those words as provocative but felt judgemental of the word “popular” in a way I don’t about the word “violence.” Do you feel that way? What does the word popular mean to you–how does it make you feel to hear it?
Chialun Chang: Violence is full of power, and expression, and it’s temporary. Popular for me, it’s like the same song that everyone is singing together and no one knows the name of it, nor when to stop. I love in your poem, when you write, “I studied popularity for 31 years.” Popularity is like that–a social activity that you have to practice, something to learn or to gain. It never comes naturally, like a violent motion, which we all have experienced coming from our body. It feels like while we are growing up, struggling with the desire to become popular, which means we’re not allowed to show who we really are.
Can you talk about how you made this poem?
BT: Sure. I had written this poem a few different ways in the past. It used to start with a recitation of a dream I had of being walked in on during a bath by someone who told me I looked like a cat. I knew he meant in a bad way, that I had a body that repulsed him. I wrote it into a poem to stay with the strange pain of that moment, and to see where it went. In that way, writing it felt exciting–opening up the feeling of worthlessness that came up in the dream. But the language I was using to counteract the feeling sounded like a child’s (“copying-off,” “casting spells”) and was outward-facing in a way made me think about how the feeling cuts across time, and about how often I’ve used other people to help me understand how to value myself. It seemed sad in the way that the word popular seems sad to me. Like something that is too weak to dream or create, and is only able to adapt.
CC: I loved when you described your dream. It reminds me of a few stories that I read when I was little. The book is called Grocer’s daughter. I remember there’s a part when the writer described his wife’s fears, and her dreams. She has always dreamt of herself standing on the stage in front of lots of men, where she is forced to perform. Then she recalled when she was little, she was showering in the hallway, and some workers needed to deliver groceries and passed her while she was naked. She felt uncomfortable, tried to hide, and turned her back around. On the other hand, her sister was relaxed and singing, she could even chat with the delivery men.
Claudia Rankine in a talk said, “racism is visual.” I feel sexism is visual, too. I also feel the body and appearance of women are easy to judge and are judged by the society/culture everyday. People would say to women, I love your outfit, you looked beautiful today, Where did you buy them, etc. But I barely heard males receiving comments on their looks. Do you feel the pressure of being a certain way on your look and body? Do you think this creates the strange pain or it makes you stronger since you repulsed him (in your dream)? Do you dream or fear from it?
BT: I want to read those stories! Yeah, even if I don’t want to let in any external pressure about my body, I’ve always been pretty sensitive to judgements and expectations. I have a lot of dreams that center on the body and what other people are thinking of or doing to it. A lot of dreams where the body is subjected to humiliation or peril.
Do you know the Mina Loy poem that ends: “There is no Space or Time/ Only intensity,/ And tame things/ Have no immensity?” It makes me think of your poem “i was well tame.” When you read that poem and “the weirdest girl dies first” at the launch, I was struck by the way you were able to conjure humiliation–like, the vivid, physical experience of it–in poems that aren’t just intense or sad, but funny, too. It made me wonder about the way you chose words in your poems. The phrase “well tame,” for instance, was so great and unexpected. I had to kind of run it through my body to make sense of it–the sound of it, the feel of it, the things it reminded me of. To me the sound of the words together has a petted quality, like an animal having its ears smoothed down.
I think I maybe just described the relationship I wish I always had to my body: to be active, and curious, in exchange with the world around me, a little borderless. It’s probably part of why I like reading and writing so much. It’s not the only thing that works for that, but it’s a contrast to times where I feel more like an observed body, tamed out of immensity.
I think writing into pressure can invite pain and, as you say, repulse it. I don’t know if writing makes me stronger, but it usually puts me in a different relation to something I want to know better and I enjoy that.
CC: I didn’t know the poem and it is beautiful. Thanks for bringing up the word, Tame. Since the issue’s theme was Popular, I wrote about moments when I felt eager to gain attention. For me, there are two clear periods when I experience this vivid desire. This poem is particular to adults and their office lives. No matter who you were in the school, you have to become another person in the company—professional. You need to kiss your boss’ ass and fit into the system. I wrote that like being an animal who is put in a cage. Aren’t we all? So we’re civilized and going to work from 9am-5pm, if not longer.
On the other hand, I read other poems in the issue and found some described their desire for or struggle with popularity when they were in school. Like the first poem “EIGHTH GRADE" by Abigail Welhouse:
Emily dared me to dig my nails into her arm until she said uncle.
Is popularity a younger person’s struggle? Are there poems that make you feel that, too? Have you suffered from the desire of wanting to be popular when you were younger? Is that different from how you feel now?
BT: Oh yeah, Abigail’s poem actually makes me think of the violent powerlessness a person can feel or act out when they want to be liked. It’s like what we talked about in the beginning–popularity is not as interesting as whatever rises up to meet or resist it.
I do think a lot of the poems in this issue looked back in order to think about popularity. It makes sense–that concept of popular is supposed to be something you outgrow–but the ways an individual is expected to keep forming and maintaining relationships to the systems around her seem sort of endless. I liked that many of these poems touched on other permutations of the desire for “popularity”–success at a job; social media presence / curation; vigilance in one’s appearance (Marisa Crawford’s poem “Spring is here again” asks “How do you make your skin youthful without being young?”); having the right beliefs (thinking here of the “popular sentiment” Nina Puro’s uses for a title in “I Love My Country”).
There’s a way that this reckoning feels solitary. I think part of that is about the challenge an artist faces in figuring out a way to expand the moment in order to include others in their thinking and feeling. But I also wonder if invoking popularity throws people into simplified ideas about the crudeness of the group and the goodness of the individual who goes their own way. Do you think there’s a way out of this binary?
CC: I can’t agree more when you said a lot of the poems looked back in order to think about Popularity. I personally think that’s a brave way/theme to write about poetry. Schools, as institutions, have provided a space for young people to learn. However, it has created lots of stresses when people wanted to fit into a group. Like what you said, appearance, I feel it also impacted our mindset. I had conversations with a couple of friends, and I found one point in common, when we talked about the past experiences of our own desire of wanting to be popular in the school, everyone seemed uncomfortable–they’d rather be called indifferent, or an outsider. As we talked into more personal experiences, they started remembering when they were under the “spotlight,” sometimes they worried no one would sit next to them during the fieldtrip, and the anxious feeling followed them when no one sat next to them on the bus. Sometimes they wanted to be friends within a group of people, they would do services like buying CDs, or paying the concert money. These cool kids activities. Most of times, we still can’t get rid of the negative feelings when teachers humiliated us. I remember one of my teachers taught me to eat tonic, so my breasts could grow bigger. There was a moment, even one of my friends asked, can we switch the word to something else positive? Like accepting? Do you feel that way about popularity? Is this a negative word for most people?
Sadly, I do feel there’s this binary about the idea of popularity, it’s either accepting or leaving the group. I often think about my classmates who couldn’t accept the style of any institution and were forced to leave. As an adult, we can go on a vacation or quit the job or quit social media to be solitary. As a child, it seems important to live alone. Can poetry prevent young people suffering from the desire of being popular? If not, is there anything else?
BT: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think poetry can reflect some of the suffering people feel when they’re struggling inside of a system, or community, or culture that isn’t working for them, so it seems more likely to make someone feel less totally alone with their feelings and struggle. I don’t know if that could prevent someone from the desire to be popular, but it might channel that desire for connection somewhere else.
Something I love about poetry and art is that it creates different ways of responding to life that aren’t reducible to fitting in or sticking out. I look to poetry when I feel out of ideas or feelings–it makes me believe that ideas and feelings don’t run out.
I’m thinking now, too, of how much my writing friendships mean to me and how writing led me to those friendships. I know you’re involved in Belladonna* Collective. I’m wondering if your participation there has influenced your writing. And is there writing you like (outside of this issue) that’s about social worlds or popularity? Do you like it when writers put their friends in their work? Do you think some poetry feels too isolated?
CC: I remember that I read I’m Nobody! Who are you? by Emily Dickinson when I was younger. All of a sudden, I felt fine not to be somebody. If Emily Dickinson thought she’s nobody, who should I think I am? I don’t think this is being humble or a comparison, it is more about how getting rid of the desire of wanting to be popular is like being out of a jail, stress free and I could finally appreciate privacy. That’s the power of poetry.
Books with titles like “How to make friends”, “How to socialize effectively”, or “How to talk” (they don’t really exist, I made those names up) give me a headache. I am not a fan of this type of books. Are you? Can you share a few? The idea of learning how to be popular is more like becoming a robot or hiding ourselves. My strategy is to talk to people. If I want to be like someone, I’d ask how they achieve. Once, one of my friends shared this with me, she said, even the most popular person in the class told her that they don’t feel they’re popular and they don’t have enough friends. Have you met anyone who feels they’re popular? Is being popular an illusion? Or it’s a peak? Once you achieve, you are going down.
I used to read lots of travel literature, and one of my favorite is City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple. Reading travel books makes me believe that there’s always another place where they don’t follow some current rules. There’s the writing for me to escape. How about you? Is there writing you like that’s about social worlds or popularity?
I’m involved with Belladonna* because I believe in our mission. I also have the privilege to spend time with many amazing poets who I admire. For me, this is a community where I feel safe to be myself. I read most of our members and authors’ book and it helps me to grow and write.
It never bothers me when writers put their friends in the writing. I can separate their writings and lives. But I’m not sure what would I feel if someone put me in their writing. I guess I’d feel insecure. How about you? Is this more like a writing community question? Can you be specific?
BT: It doesn’t bother me either. I mean, I often find it moving. I guess it’s harder for me to separate writings from lives, but I have a hard time separating things in general.
I like the idea of reading travel literature to remember that there are other worlds out there when your immediate world doesn’t fit. It feels related to the kind of writing about social worlds that is exciting to me right now–writing that sees the social as a site for collaboration and for imagining new paths forward, toward justice and tenderness, or the annihilation of what is known and not working. It’s hard to be specific because I think this can (and does) look like a lot of things and I don’t want to describe it as much as I want to encounter it and see where it leads.
>>Illustrations by Mary Anne Carter
>>Chialun Chang was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan. She is the author of a chapbook, One Day We Become Whites (No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press), recent poems can be found in Home School, Brooklyn Rail, Bone Bouquet, iO poetry, 92Y, and No, Dear Magazine. Two of her translated chapbooks have been published by Belladonna* Collaborative. She is a recipient of fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts IAP program, The Center for Book Arts, and Poets House.
>>Bridget Talone lives in Ridgewood, and is the author of Sous Les Yeux, a chapbook forthcoming from Catenary Press.