Interview with Jasmine An on Naming the No-Name Woman

Julianna DeMicco interviews Jasmine An, author of the poetry chapbook Naming the No-Name Woman (Two Sylvias Press, 2016). Discover how An’s work challenges an easy definition of the Chinese-American identity, her hopes for the future of political poetry, and her upcoming projects.

Editor’s note: The interview below has been lightly edited.

JD: Your chapbook Naming the No-Name Woman explores the theme of identities, whether it is finding, accepting, or reclaiming said identity. How has your background and identity influenced the poems in this chap?

JA: There’s no question that every aspect of my personal background and identity shaped the poems of this chapbook. Naming the No-Name Woman is an intensely personal investigation of my inheritances – whether they be social, cultural, or historical – as a third-generation, Chinese-American woman. While I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking my identity alone gives me authority or obligation to write about certain topics, I do think that I was drawn to Anna May Wong’s story due to aspects of our identity that we share, at least on a surface level. Writing in dialogue with her legacy hopefully shows both my indebtedness to and relinquishment of her shadow and complicates any presumed homogeneity of “Chinese-American” and “woman.”

JD: There are so many moments of lyrical beauty in your poems – evocative images that are expressed in such pitch-perfect language. Do you consider yourself a lyric poet? Who or what are your influences, aesthetically?

JA: This is a surprising question, in a delightful way, because for a long time I struggled with sound and lyricism in my writing. I consider myself to be a primarily narrative poet. With these poems in particular, I made a conscious effort to make sure there was some sort of continuity between each word, whether that came in meaning, alliteration, or internal rhyme. This collection was a project in challenging myself to try new things with sound and language and I’m glad it is somewhat noticeable!

As for influences, the further I get from the Midwest and the more I expand my knowledge of the contemporary poetry world, the more I realize how much I’m crafted by the writing community of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember hearing slam poetry at the Neutral Zone Teen Center for the first time as a high schooler and being absolutely stunned by the word bloom and young poets and storytellers my age wielding language in ways I never imagined was possible.

I don’t think it’s always a conscious influence, but sometimes I’ll see a poem from someone who also grew up in Ann Arbor’s literary scene or had a mentor with Ann Arbor connections and be like, “Wow, this is so familiar.” Even though we write in completely different voices, something clings, like the way you can recognize the smell of a familiar brand of laundry detergent on a stranger’s clothes.

While I was trying to think of lyrical models for this collection in particular, I thought of Aracelis Girmay and Shira Erlichman. Shira for her fearless ripping apart and reassemblage of language and beautifully surprising word choices, and Aracelis for the way anything she describes becomes the ur of itself and her ability to turn words into a kind of worship.

JD: Some of your poems recently appeared in the anthology Political Punch, and some of the work in this chapbook might be considered political. Do you consider any of these poems to be political? How would you characterize the relationship between beauty and politics, in poetry and in the world at large? What parts of that relationship do you think are most interesting, difficult, or useful? 

JA: My knee-jerk response to this question as a well-trained, liberal arts college grad is to say of course these poems are political, “the personal is political,” everything is political, etc. etc. etc. However, to be slightly less glib about it, I hope these poems stretch the cut and dried definition of “political” in a similar way the poems of the Political Punch anthology showed the range of political writing.

Like the word “political,” I think the word “beauty” is slightly dangerous because it is a subjective thing often cast as objective. When beauty is frozen into a singular and static norm, it is easily turned into a measuring tape or tool of oppression. That being said, I also think many things are beautiful, including Anna May Wong and all that we can inherit from her: her films, her interviews, her complicated history.

For me, if these poems are political or beautiful, it is in the way they celebrate Chinese-American womanhood and refuse to reduce the narrative of an often marginalized identity to one of only suffering and loss. It is my hope that these poems demand recognition of hardship and oppression, but also of joy, tenacious pride, and defiant presence.

JD: The Agape team and our blog readers have been enjoying your MIDWEST MONKEY column so far! Any teasers for upcoming stories you’re planning to share on the blog this summer?

JA: I honestly have no idea. So far ideas for the column have come to me on the fly. Thai language remains endlessly fascinating to me though, so I’m sure I’ll be babbling about it again. I just got back from competing in a fencing tournament in Bangkok and if there’s any way I can possibly make that relevant to poetry and travel, it will most definitely make an appearance.

JD: What literary projects are you working on right now? Do you have any specific goals or plans in mind for these upcoming book(s)?

JA: I have a chapbook of Monkey King poems coming out with ELJ Publications next year. It’s my first attempt at a chapbook-length collection, written during my junior year of undergrad and most definitely my baby. It’s also a dialogue with Chinese folklore, an attempt at Midwestern myth making, and a celebration of Sun Wukong, one of my childhood favorites who has followed me into adulthood as a trickster muse.

I’m also trying to find my way to my next project. It may involve venturing out of poetry and into creative nonfiction and lyric essays. I have a poem about batesian mimicry and motorcycle crashes that I’ve been telling myself to expand into an essay for months, so it might be about time to sit down and do it.

Jasmine An is a queer, Chinese-American who comes from the Midwest. A 2015 graduate of Kalamazoo College, she has also lived in New York City and Chiang Mai, Thailand, studying poetry, urban development, and blacksmithing. Her chapbook Naming the No-Name Woman was selected as the winner of the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in HEArt Online, Stirring, Heavy Feather Review, and Southern Humanities Review. Her soulmate and forever muse is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. As of 2016, she can be found in Chiang Mai continuing her study of the Thai language.

Julianna DeMicco is a rising senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.

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