“I wanted to turn to actual living language—and reveal, through poetry, the contradictions or erasures or sometimes comic possibilities imposed by different texts.”
August 20, 2021
Carlina Duan’s second collection, Alien Miss, begins with a section of poems revolving around Alien Miss, a figure seemingly formed by a composite of voices—familial, historical, magical, contemporary, communal—that haunt the rest of the collection even when not explicitly present.
I was most struck throughout by the presence and centering of these voices. While mapping the fraught histories of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its aftermath, which in itself is an ambitious project, the poems in Alien Miss write toward various collectives and presents as an offering, as a celebration, and sometimes as a questioning. Ultimately, Alien Miss is an homage to lineage and all its multiple tributaries that inform our work and personhood.
Over email and Instagram Live this spring, Duan and I spoke about the notions of care and accountability community affords us, along with the building of Alien Miss as an archive, the adaption as well as resistance of the persona form, the ways language and history informed her collection, and the possibilities these poems have to “live nuanced lives” beyond the book.
I wanted to start with a check-in that can delve as deep or not deep as you’d like. I think you mentioned somewhere that this book has poems you’ve written from 2017 to 2019 and early 2020. So my question is: How are you? How does it feel having the book out in the world? How does it feel having this book out in this world this year?
So grateful for this check-in! Thank you. I’m tired, soft, angry, burnt out. I’m often thinking about what it means to toggle the world in our bodies—as Asian Americans and Asian diasporic peoples, what further exhaustion and tiredness this new iteration of violences brings. And also, what community-sharing and community-growing we are capable of. It’s like what Ross Gay says about forging a new ethic of care amid this pandemic—that within this season, as we’re all collectively holding onto so much grief, there are “emergent” ways of caring. Always, renewing our ways to say I see you and I care for you.
That’s so beautiful and something I needed to remember today and always. In keeping with the conversation around gratitude, I did want to bring up the acknowledgements in your book that, to me, read like a poem in and of itself, and where you talk about gratitude being “forever live and evolving.”
It was so wonderful to attend your book launch and see this gratitude celebrated and reciprocated. Of course, the collection reckons with such a complicated and cruel part of American history that is clearly ongoing, but your poems stay steeped in love and are such a testament to community. I hope you know the community is rooting for you right back, and I am celebrating and thankful for this book.
Thinking of acknowledgements, are there any specific collections, books, and/or writers you see Alien Miss in conversation with directly or indirectly?
The two writers who graciously blurbed the book—Cathy Park Hong and Aracelis Girmay—are my luminaries, and I see myself as a lifelong student of their writings.
Aracelis visited my high school journalism class when I was fourteen. She gave a poetry reading that changed my life and made poetry feel like a possible space for me to create into. My high school teacher painted Loisfoeribari—a line from one of Aracelis’s poems—on the wall of our writing classroom following her visit. I always think about the afterlives of her poetry living in me and my peers in that class, and in the generations after us; Aracelis’s poems hold that balance of radical tenderness, empathy, and sharp critique. All of her books fuel me.
And of course, there’s Cathy Park Hong, whose poems and writing I’ve been so fortunate to study since I was in college. Her books Engine Empire and Translating Mo’um (and the book of the year and every year! Minor Feelings!) have been instructive and transformative for me, so much so that I wrote an entire chapter of my undergraduate thesis on her first book, nerd that I am! Cathy’s poetry helps me participate more honestly and sharply in my own relationships with language. And beyond her writing, I admire the many ways she participates in community space, how she does so much to highlight and amplify the work of other young APIA writers and makers.
In the past few years I’ve also been able to revisit Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, and I think Alien Miss is inspired by some of the powerful intertextual weaving with language, image, and history that Cha so powerfully carved out in that work.
I just want you to know I feel very, very validated in my reading of Alien Miss hearing you talk about these texts, lol, because I feel like I was unintentionally holding them all in my head as I read your book.
Also thinking of, as you point out, poems and stories being “not final” and our learnings evolving, who are you reading and rereading these days?
I always return to Jasmine An’s chapbook from Porkbelly Press, Monkey Was Here. It’s a brilliant collection of mythic poems celebrating and expanding place and self through the lens of the Monkey King. I’m reading Sophia Stid’s poem “The Marriage Bed” over and over, a poem that reminds me about the romance of friendship and how love poems for friends can act as a balm. I also just finished Emily Pittinos’s collection, The Last Unkillable Thing, which was so beautiful and pulled forth so many exclamations of “Wow.”
I have also been working on a project for a while about community cookbooks and language found in cookbooks as sites of social action and public pedagogy, so I have been cherishing Hawa Hassan’s In Bibi’s Kitchen and also reading many cooking blogs. (I’ll add that I adore Samin Nosrat’s writing, laughter (!), and podcast with Hrishikesh Hirway, Home Cooking.)
I am curious about the formal decisions behind these poems. Intertextuality is omnipresent in the book very, very tangibly. You have quotes and excerpts spanning external texts, interviews, copy on park websites, and, of course, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. With documentation and writing as archiving so integral to the Alien Miss series, what went into the decision, if there was an active decision, to carry this endeavor out in poetry?
I had been drawn to incorporating documentary texts and multivocal languages into these poems after studying writing by Solmaz Sharif and Layli Long Soldier, whose books invited me to bear hyper-witness to my own personal and national culpability through linguistic acts of erasure and violence. So when I turned to Alien Miss, I felt accountable to not shy away from glossing over existing sets of legal and historical language and lyricizing them; I wanted to turn to actual living language—and reveal, through poetry, the contradictions or erasures or sometimes comic possibilities imposed by different texts, such as the Angel Island State Park website text. I was also thinking a lot about binaries made within the folds of history books or even museum exhibits or the rhetoric of the state—official and unofficial, documented and undocumented, for example. The actual research process of digging through online text and reconsidering that language—placing it within the court of a poem—allowed for possibilities with line breaks, space, and juxtaposition that helped me re-interrogate the environments that the quotes or excerpts came from. It allowed for a proximity to the linguistic environment that helped me, in turn, lend critique of—or empathy to—those spaces.
And that was so important to me, as a writer, to read through the first section and see accountability not just as intention but also as content, as theme.
Your long poem “Alien Miss Confronts the Author” anchors these concerns around accountability, language, culture, and obsessions that are sustained not just through the poem but through each poem that comes after. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of making this poem and its role as the anchor of the Alien Miss series and the collection as a whole?
“Alien Miss Confronts the Author” is the last poem in the sequence and was written while I was doing a residency at Tin House in Portland. I had finished writing the earlier Alien Miss poems, but something felt off and incomplete to me about the sequence. I was contending with the glaring omission of my own culpability and privileges in these poems as the author, and I didn’t want to just have the other Alien Miss poems exist in a silo and risk simplifying or performing a history. I felt deeply embodied in the Alien Miss poems, and I also felt troubled by them. The long poem provided a way for me to reveal my ongoing questions about my own role as a descendent but also an observer of the history of Angel Island and the Chinese Exclusion Acts. What are the implications of my own body made possible through this history? What is my daily responsibility not only as the writer but also as the carrier or “reader” of this history? The long poem responded to these questions by raising and reckoning with my own privileges and positionalities as a second-generation Midwestern writer born to Chinese immigrants; it allowed me to interrupt the myth of neutrality in this project, while also contending with my embodied discomfort with parts of my research process. In doing so, it unlocked so much for me about this sequence, by teaching me how to write into—and sit alongside—uncertainty in a poem.
Something I appreciated so much in this collection is how the persona series is central to the collection but is not the only voice throughout. In thinking about project books and persona as a sustained figure, what were the challenges of sequencing a collection like this one? What went into serializing not just the Alien Miss poems but also deciding to have three sections with different but overlapping themes and subjects?
Initially, I thought that the entire Alien Miss project would be a long persona poem told from a solitary speaker rooted in and revealing the historical aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Acts. I quickly realized that not only could I not sustain this energy and voice throughout a poem, but that every time I sat down and tried to write a poem from an Alien Miss voice, she was a composite of multiple voices—mine, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and, sometimes, a chorus of women including people such as Teresa Teng or Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee, all of whom spanned different temporal and geographic histories. That’s why the book is in three main sections. Each section asks a different branch of the same question: Who gets to write/hold history?
I really struggled with the persona form. I wanted to make sure I wrote persona in a way that still felt accountable to the histories themselves—and there were a few poems that started out as Alien Miss personas that I changed into the third person or switched to a contemporary speaker looking at a historical event, because it didn’t feel right to try and take on specific poems in the lyrical “I” voice.
The poems that stayed persona poems are there because I felt that there was an emotional “essence” (Rita Dove’s term) that felt true to the experience of an event or a situation, made possible through a very particular point of view. But, for as much research as I did for the book, I obviously was simultaneously projecting my own imagination into all of the poems. I’m also aware there have been so many instances in books or projects where the attempt at persona goes horribly wrong and the persona poem ends up committing erasure, essentialization, or violence. I hope that Alien Miss was respectful and cognizant of the risks of the persona form. Luckily there are also amazing books, such as Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species and Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, that I turned to as examples to help guide me in using the persona (I hope) responsibly and with genuine empathy for the speaker-personas that are invented, as well as to the historical circumstance.
I want to end by thinking about the possibilities this book provides your readers. Alien Miss is an exploration of alternatives: these poems posit alternative histories (and the interrogation of who this history is alternative to) and alternative familial narratives. The poems go against the fetishist version of Asian American bodies we see in stories not written by or for us. What is one alternative conversation you want readers to engage with through you as a poet or through Alien Miss that you haven’t gotten a chance to talk about yet?
One of the poems in the book, “Do You Have a Grammatically Correct Response to the Question,” was a really formative poem for me to write. It’s a poem about linguistic violence and bodies being affected by that linguistic violence, but it’s also very much a poem about embodying care and power for oneself through language. I hope readers get a chance to think through how to tend and care for their beloveds and their communities through language as a site or as a beginning place for action, and to also seriously consider their own accountabilities toward tending to our collective language. I hope readers (and I) continue to reckon with historical or contemporary moments of linguistic violence, and our own complicity or participation in the project of making and sustaining language.
I also really hope that these poems spark some sense of joy in addition to critique. It was important for me to have love poems in the book. Love poems to family members or to spaces or to the self. These are poems that speak toward survival as much as they speak toward communal care, and I’m hopeful that these poems get to live nuanced lives, to sit within the complexity of grief and rage alongside joy and deep love.
I love this idea so, so much and honestly have not stopped thinking about both the poem you mentioned and the possibilities of our individual reckoning with language since we spoke. Thank you for giving us this.
Would you like to give shout-outs to any local or independent bookstores folks can support by purchasing Alien Miss from?