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‘The “OG” of Asian American poetry’: Marilyn Chin on poetry and self-expression

<h5>Sam Yamashita / The Daily Princetonian</h5>
Sam Yamashita / The Daily Princetonian

“Poetry is ultimate expression. When we’re deeply hurt, we write in our little journals, right? A lot of magic comes out of those words. Much of that magic is poetry,” said Marilyn Chin, one of Princeton’s most recent faculty members in the Program in Creative Writing, where she serves as a Visiting Lecturer and Holmes Poet.

Chin, 67, said she had just decided to reread Toni Morrison’s works when she received a call from Creative Writing Director Yiyun Li, asking her to come teach creative writing on campus. Chin said, “It was like Toni Morrison was speaking to me. I feel her presence here [at Princeton]. I’m just flowing, in a Taoist way. Flow with the universe.”

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Chin, a self-described “poetry geek,” has roots all over the world, in Hong Kong, Beijing, Taiwan, Portland, Iowa, and, most recently, New Jersey. Her earliest memories of poetry come from her grandmother in Hong Kong, who would recite memorized poetry while carrying Chin on her back.

“She had this deep memory and chanted all these poems. I heard poetry very young. It started coursing in army blood. I didn't understand a word of it, but something about the music and the persistence of her voice became deeply ingrained in my soul,” Chin said.

Chin went on to earn a degree in Chinese literature before becoming one of the first Asian American women to earn a Master in Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the most celebrated graduate-level creative writing programs in the country. Chin is a trailblazer: in addition to her MFA, Chin is a Fulbright Scholar, Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Holmes Poet, and professor.

“I guess I am the ‘OG’ of Asian American poetry. I started writing these rah-rah Asian American feminist poems. I argued with people on panels, and I just caused a little trouble in my youth,” said Chin. 

One of Chin’s current students, Ethan Luk ’24, said he took her introductory poetry class because of Chin’s background. In taking her course, Luk built an understanding of the value of Asian American visibility within poetry.

“Asian American poets haven’t been given enough recognition in the literary landscape. I consider them to be like guardian figures in my life,” Luk said. 

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“They make me feel so seen even though I have never met them,” he continued. “Sharing space with an Asian American poet like Marilyn Chin feels like a long overdue experience. Representation matters, and when it happens, it feels like a puzzle piece has finally fallen into place.”

Chin brought female, Asian American-centered poetry to the forefront of her field. She partly attributes the inspiration for her trailblazing poems to music. 

“It helps me to hear the voice, hear the songs, hear the music of poetry,” Chin said. “Each poem feels like an epiphany. They’re like little songs. And when I finally finish one I feel gratified.”

“Whatever upsets you in your heart that you need to express, you’re going to express it,” Chin continued. “There’s magic in every poem we write, and I believe that there is true revelation. Your truth will come out through the words, through the images.”

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One way Chin expresses herself is through politics. Clad in a “Notorious RBG” shirt, she described herself as part of the Second-wave feminist movement. 

“I think the personal is political. I’ve always written autobiographical poetry. The Self represents something larger than the Self. The Self represents the community, the world, our species, the globe,” she said.

Beyond sharing emotions with the world, Chin describes poetry as a private reflection on a person’s own experiences: “Poetry is deep in our souls, in our hearts.”

Luk said he relates to this deeply personal nature of poetry, describing it as a unit of time he uses to measure the different phases of life. 

“Poetry has taught me to view my experiences with sensitivity and tenderness. It’s kind of a magical experience when you see how your experiences have distilled into a body of language. My collection of poems on my laptop feel like a personal archive, or a photo library. Except I have created everything within the photos,” Luk said.

Christopher Nunez ’26, another student in Chin’s introductory poetry class, said he appreciates the liberating nature of poetry: “You kind of let go of any thoughts you have. It’s like whatever’s on my mind is on the paper.”

Nunez is a data reporter for The Daily Princetonian.

Chin’s own passion for poetry translates into the way that she engages with her students.

“I see myself as an ambassador for the genre of poetry because I love it so much. I want everybody to love it,” Chin said. “Poetry is ineffable. It's something that you can’t define completely. When we’re engaged in our studies and we worry about the future and how to make our living and so forth, it is important to have an art form that is ineffable, that is something beyond our human and present purpose. It speaks to our humanity.”

Nunez noted that Chin’s passion for poetry shines through in her teaching style: “She’s honestly one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and is so open to help and talk about poetry in a way that’s calming and makes you feel like you really want to learn.”

As part of her quest to imbue students with a love for poetry, Chin said she makes sure to assign the widest possible array of poets. She has her students “read, read, read,” she said, “because poetry has a deep and fascinating history. It’s universal, it’s personal, it’s ancient, it’s contemporary. I require a lot of reading because they really need a foundation of what poetry is.”

Nunez appreciates the diverse foundation of texts that forms Chin’s syllabus. “She really wants to expose the class to poetry that isn’t what we normally see,” Nunez explained. “It’s not just either modern poetry or Shakespeare style poetry. She’s allowed us to see the voices of so many people. I think that’s really important if you want to grow as a writer and learn more about the diversity behind writing.”

For Chin, it’s not just about reading poetry: it’s about the experience of reading poetry. For this reason, she said she has her students read from a physical copy rather than a digital one.

“When you're sitting quietly and reading off a page, you have this personal connection with the poet, and I think that is very important. I purposely chose books for my class that they can’t get off the internet,” Chin said.

Once they have acquired a diverse background through reading, Chin instructs her students to write about anything they want. She views her role as giving students the tools for creation, so that they can craft their own work.

“They write about all kinds of stuff. They move me and shock me every day,” Chin said. 

In teaching college students, Chin has come to appreciate the “beginner mind,” after having taught at an MFA program for more than 20 years.

“The introductory students, some of them have never written a poem, so they’re fresh. The Zen poets always say, ‘beginner mind, best mind.’ I'm enjoying my time here because they’re so enthusiastic,” said Chin.

Aside from teaching beginners, Chin is currently working on a new book of poems titled “Sage,” which is set for release in late spring 2023.

“I’m really almost Zen. I mean, almost,” Chin remarked, describing a pervasive feeling of peace and contentment she experiences on campus. “I’m just so happy to be here. I’m having a great time. I find the students immensely entertaining. They make me very happy.”

Sam Yamashita is a Features contributor for The Daily Princetonian. Please direct any correction requests to corrections(at)dailyprincetonian.com.

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