Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 – Chia-Lun Chang

What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?

Writing this way has been very difficult, and I believe it will always be. I was in the process of applying for a US permanent residency and I was anxious because of everything I needed to prepare, the policies, and the wait. Currently, I’ve been denied. This unsteady situation makes my life unpredictable and has made me skeptical. While my work is mainly focused on the in-between life that I am faced with now, I often doubt if I’m capable of speaking out on any other topic. My mind is occupied with immigration law and my status. I actually find myself consistently asking, who am I, and what really matters? I believe that the society where I am living in at the moment has shaped who I have become and every choice I have made. Most of the time, I can’t be myself because I’m confused and detained, and my writing could always be exploring issues in the moment. Who doesn’t wanna be their true self? Who can’t? My question would be: can you also keep the freedom of uncertainty?

Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both?

There was no Mandarin word for lesbian before 邱妙津 (Chiu Miao-Chin)’s Notes of a Crocodile was published. In the novel, the main character’s nickname is 拉子 (Lazi), which has become widely accepted as one of the terms used to denote oneself within the lesbian community. It’s a common name for us to feel comfortable sharing in a closed group, and it’s neutral. As modern society changes dramatically, daily, I believe literature can serve as a medium to constitute new language. Claudia Rankine said, as people of color, we can hear, we can feel, when language is weaponized against us. If so, can literature weaken the weapon? Can we create some new vocabulary for people who don’t identify as he or she or they; for y’all but not you guys; for America, the country, not the continent; for the foreigner yet immigrant?

What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Read and raise questions. Listen and try to be kind. I think about giving up on writing almost every day. It’s never easy, especially if you have no one to look up to. My grandmother is illiterate and none of my family members is a writer. I’m still emerging and would probably forever be. I tell myself: It’s not about who you were, it’s about what you want. Your story matters, particularly now. My friend Lauren Clark shared that they write a list of names from whom they’re writing for and put it up on the desk. My teacher Rebecca Hardin-Thrift once told me: remember if anyone ever makes you feel bad about you haven’t read a certain book, you read another book that they don’t know.

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to? Is there a particular excerpt from your work in Bettering American that you would like to share?

I’ve been thinking about Naturalization by Jenny Xie and The Time Machine by Laura Kasischke. In addition, I wrote my piece after reading On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari by Robin Coste Lewis. The story about my piece is: I’ve been trying to avoid travel poems, like traveling to a place for a few days and writing a poem about it. However, now I thought it’s okay as long as I put myself on the scene, instead of talking over others. I was also stuck when I told New England people that I lived in Mississippi for two years. It’s always a puzzle to me that people have mixed feelings, mostly confused or even a taboo toward the deep south. I’d be very delightful to see people not be afraid of the topic of southern history. The land is also a part of United States.


Author photo of Chia-Lun Chang, sitting at a restaurant with her arms crossed, with a thoughtful look. Lights reflect against the image, as if it's taken through glass.CHIA-LUN CHANG is the author of a chapbook, One Day We Become Whites (No, Dear/Small Anchor Press), and her recent work appears in PEN America, Hyperallergic, Literary Hub, and The Brooklyn Rail. She has received support from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, The Center for Book Arts and Poets House. Born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, she lives in New York City.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for these anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.