You Can Find Familiarity in Any Space You Go: A Conversation With Carlina Duan

Nearing the one year birthday of I Wore My Blackest Hair, I was drawn to revisiting this collection of poems. I’m really excited by first books, and partly I’d been feeling a bit lonely after graduating from an MFA program and wanted to spend time with a text imagined by a familiar voice. As I reread the poems, I found my loneliness not only as a valid, fully embodied experience, but one that could reveal the complexity of longing. Throughout the poems, there is the loneliness of not knowing which country or group or border you should pledge allegiance to pushed up against stark images, like a father cleaning his child’s passport with an alcohol wipe. There’s also the loneliness that sparks gratitude, loneliness as the shadow of desire. I welcomed the righteousness of anger and protest in the book, that lines like “in a dream / men told me I was small / and what did I know” exist in a collection where a daughter calls her father an asshole.

Carlina Duan spent most of her life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I first met her. We earned our BAs together from the University of Michigan in English Literature and Creative Writing alongside the writers Erika Nestor, Yasin Abdul-Muqit, Saba Keramati, Leela Denver, among others. Many of the poems in I Wore My Blackest Hair, Carlina’s first full-length collection, were written during this time when girlhood and adulthood wove together. After graduating, Carlina received a 2016 Fulbright grant to live and teach in Malaysia. Her poems pulse with the places she’s been, one’s imagined, and the desire to enliven spaces of loss—historical and personal. Carlina’s poems have been anthologized and published in Uncommon Core, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Black Warrior Review, The Margins, and Berkeley Poetry Review. In 2017, she won first place in Narrative’s 30 Below Contest for her poems. She is currently an MFA Candidate at Vanderbilt University where she co-edits the Nashville Review with John Shakespear.


Eager to hear that Carlina is working on a second collection, the first thing I wanted to ask her was what she was tired of answering about her work so far, or if there was a part of her writing life she had yet to share with the world. And so I did.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently that I haven’t talked about as much publicly is myth, and mythic poems. I’m thinking a lot about how to write my way into a myth, particularly the history of Chinese myths. Obviously I talk and write a lot about my identity, mostly ethnic identity and being a daughter of Chinese immigrants. Something I’ve noticed happening in my poems, at least in the past two years or so though I’ve been doing this a little bit earlier, is writing a lot of mythic poems in situations that might warrant an escape.

What typically happens is I’ll be writing my way into a conflict, into a situation where the speaker runs out of language or does not have the English language to communicate what she’s thinking or feeling. And in these poems, what I’m describing as mythic poems, the speaker ends up transforming into an animal or creature of some sorts. So, she either develops fangs or sprouts wings or, you know, something happens that is surreal or animalistic. I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been doing this and I actually think it’s because it’s a way in which I’m able to become unstuck in a poem and use the body in a poem to do the speaking. For example, I just finished a poem where a speaker rather than use language in a situation grows fangs and takes a bite out of a steak. Thinking a lot about what that action might convey—and without words it still conveys something—I think I’m transforming within the boundaries of a poem and becoming animal in some way.

I was going to ask something related because I noticed this happening in your poems, especially when you’d get to the point of expressing a rage or anger. I’m not sure if this is me just projecting my own feelings of being a woman, of it being really uncomfortable to have angry emotions because doing so obviously breaks a lot of norms and standards. I imagine that gets further complicated with layering other identities on top of womanhood, so what you said is really interesting to me, that myth is a way to transform or escape in a poem.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the emotion of anger and rage recently, particularly with everything’s been happening nationally. I do think that for me there’s a way in life, or a way that my body exists on a day to day basis, that I’m read automatically as someone who anger might not be something that first comes to people’s minds when they think about me or my body. That maybe has to do with being Asian American, petite, and a woman. And so there are these expectations set up sometimes about my pacifism or softness.

I truly am very grateful to be a body in the world and to be alive, so the way I tend to exert my  energy in the world is one of joy. But I do think that can become really exhausting when you’re expected to perform joy or perform softness all the time. So, there’s a way in which that anger or rage becomes manifested in a poem, and what you’re describing becomes manifested within the body or the speaker becoming a creature of her own. That rage becomes its own animalistic creature and takes over the poem.

Are there poets you’re reading right now who you’re in conversation with about showing the animal in a poem?

The first person who comes into my head is Muriel Rukeyser. I never actually encountered her work until last year. I started by reading “The Book of the Dead.” I’m so interested in poets who are using their writing or using the boundaries of the poem to push at questions that might leap outside of those boundaries. I’m really in love with the way Rukeyser documents and calls attention to questions around a specific community. And then it’s like she’s using the poems together bound up in one collection to cast out a sense of criticism. In her case specifically it’s governmental regulations and the health of a certain community.

I read a lot of Cathy Park Hong’s work, and I’m revisiting her right now because she is, conveniently, coming to Vanderbilt to read in two weeks. I think she relates a little bit to rage but also to language in the ways I think she’s hyper aware of how to use the English language as a form of linguistic activism within her poems, particularly with her first book. She speaks a lot about the exoticiatization of Korean female bodies using English and Korean as a way to poke or prod at the reader’s set of expectations for what the poems might contain. I think a lot about her when I think about this lineage of rage and celebration and joy and protest. I’m also in the middle of Tiana Clark’s “I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood”—

Oh cool!

Yeah! I think in her work there’s a really sharp tooth way of looking at the world and obviously she extends such a spilling amount of love to all the people and places she’s talking about, but there’s also this sense of being unafraid to critique the thing that she loves. That’s a big lesson I’m coming to learn, within my poems, but also within my life: to love someone or place automatically includes your willingness to critique it, probe at it, and think of ways to make it better.

What you’re saying about place, and what it means to love a place, seems essential. Clearly in your first collection there’s a lot about Michigan as the space in which the speaker physically occupies but then there are all these recollections of places they’re imagining or inhabiting through history, like with the artifacts from Angel Island. How do you understand place as not just somewhere you live but also as something you can visit or return to through the imagination?

I think of place as not being limited to a specifically geographical plot of land but how a person can inhabit—even an item, even a name. Those are all places to me. A citrus tree. My last name. These places come with histories and responsibilities and pleasures. Protest is housed within them. Maybe this an over generous view of place, but I see it as being a part of a person’s inhabited relationship with the world tied to moving through a particular experience.

When I was thinking about the Angel Island poem, I was thinking about what my body and my last name have inherited through history. I was really thinking about the Angel Island immigration station and bodies that have been detained within that confined space because they were trying to begin their lives in the United States. In many ways, my experience is completely different from that and yet there are ways in which I feel that as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and Chinese descendants, and as a body that’s been born and grown in the United States, there’s a part of my history that’s completely seared to that history as well. For me, place is also longing. It is also history and knowing. I was reaching back across decades and years to imagine the poems.

Are you continuing this imagining in the new collection?

The new collection right now is very, very rough, but Angel Island is a big part of it. And another part of the book is rethinking China during the sixties when my parents grew up, which was during the cultural revolution in China. A portion of that is me trying to think about what spaces have arisen for me and which ones I have descended from, and so inherited.

I’m excited for that! Do you feel like having moved recently to the South—and just this age we’re at in general, our mid-twenties, where many of us just feel unrooted, does that further complicate how you look back on place, especially ones you call home? I see a lot of language around loneliness and sisterhood in your poems, so I’m curious.

In 2016, I moved to Malaysia for a year after having lived in Michigan for really my entire life. I think when I got to Malaysia, I was so lonely, but also I think when you move anywhere new there’s a sense of Gold Rush that happens too. It’s like you’re able to look back on your old home spaces in ways that were previously not possible. New place and new people and new experiences push you to cast a magic back on the space you’re from. So, when I was living in Malaysia, I was lonely but also felt so alive. I was going to the market and eating durian and meeting Malaysian students who were so earnest and were calling me “Ms. C.”


It was completely invigorating and also deeply alienating, but it was encouraging for me to find that you can find familiarly in any space you go. I was just talking to a friend about this the other day, but I’m not really afraid of moving to places despite the loneliness and that initial feeling of not knowing because it opens up a lot within me to be both thinking of places I once hailed from and being oversaturated by new experiences.

So maybe loneliness can guide us to newness?

I don’t know…I think loneliness and desire are definitely big emotions that I wield constantly and that show up in my work, but I’m also really glad because I think it makes me look at moments where I am full of community and joy. Those moments become really shiny. I think when you are lonely in some way that means you have a place or community or people to be lonely for. That comes across in my writing as missing places and people, but also diaspora—what it means to miss a language I can’t quite claim or a history I cannot fully know. I feel like I’m frequently caught in between, but that’s its own space. That’s something I’m currently trying to write towards or have written towards in the past.

That in-betweenness makes me think of “Ann Arbor Michigan – Generation 1,” a poem where the speaker seems very much rooted in their physical space while also conjuring their grandfather and his ashes. This generational quality you’re talking to now, and that runs through your poems, really fascinates me. If we extend this idea of place to the fact of the internet and that we can access more artifacts of cultural and personal history immediately, has that changed or played into the writing practice you engage with in terms of diaspora? Have you been led to places you couldn’t have imagined with personal memory alone?

Oh definitely. Actually, yesterday, I was trying to write a sestina…it ended up being a totally failed sestina about fatherhood. It recalled for me that when I first started writing poems, I felt like I was drawn to portraying an image of Chinese father in times of conflict or times of anger. That’s pretty present in the first poem of “I Wore my Blackest Hair,” but the more I started writing about fathers, I also started thinking about how in Western media there’s a really familiar image of the Chinese father as really angry or stern or strict. Then I thought of experiences I actually had with my own father or the Chinese fathers of my friends. Actually, they’re really funny and really joyous! They laugh really loudly and play chess on the weekends and read books with their legs propped up on the sofa. So, I’ve been writing these poems about Chinese dads and all day yesterday I was trying to write a poem about this character that shows up a lot in my poems, Bàba, you know, a Chinese father, and the poem is called “Bàba Encounters a Knife and a Fork.” I found myself on the internet googling so many objects and procedures that helped me find my way into the poem. Tiny little glimmering things. I googled how to hold a wine glass properly, how to cut into a steak, what is an erhu made out of, what does an erhu sound like. I went onto YouTube and could hear the syrupy quality of a Chinese fiddle being played. Almost every single poem I write contains some really funny internet research that’s mostly just me typing in questions about sensory details of how to capture a really particular experience, and that’s a way for me to build a poem in a lived way. There are those who might say, “Wikipedia isn’t real!,” but I’m really grateful for it. I can learn right on the spot.

Yeah, and it’s reminding me too of what you were saying about place, that it seems to be always be changing and always a sort of construction. I think there’s ways just through engaging online or having that immediate research available that you can expand your understanding of a space that may otherwise be forgotten. Since your work seems so focused on family, has your familial history previously been the launching point for most of your poems or has your work always been more grounded in research?

It’s a fusion of both. More often, when I’m starting a poem, it’s deeply rooted in questions of longing or family or desire, so they’re more personal or emotional. But the questions that are at the core of the poem often began from something I’ve encountered through research or in the world. I’m working on a poem right now that’s about Kentucky Fried Chicken, but it’s about Chinese KFC’s. This summer, I was traveling in China and I got to meet a young female architect. She had done some of her research for her own project on a KFC in Beijing that was the site of student activist groups during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China. I was so interested in what it meant for place in that sense, to have this fast food chain operate as a site for political protest where all these student activist would meet. It’s really hard to find research on this topic, but this architect I was eating with gave me initial links to look at. That’s a poem that emerged out of research but also just out of conversation with another scholar who’s invested in this work. But I’m also trying to write a series of poems about Tinder…


I have about three right now and I’m not sure if they will continue or not, but they were really fun poems to write. And those poems operate not from a place of family or a site of academic research but just a curiosity I had about desire and us all looking at pictures of each other. And, like, all these men holding fish with gaping mouths. That series of poems is really playful and eccentric and experimental.

Well, that touches on something interesting though. You were talking about the assumption that a Google research process isn’t taken as serious in the same way Tinder might not be seen as a serious form of connection. Yet both are obviously super efficient tools for fulfilling a need or represent something about curiosity and desire. What do you think this means about community or connection now and how can writers can continue to interact in a meaningful way?

It’s impossible for me to separate writing from community. They’re forever entwined for me and I think it’s because I was super lucky as a young person to find writing through community. You know this story, but as a really young person I grew up going to poetry workshops at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor every single Thursday. Having peers who were interested in writing and curious and wanting to ask questions…that was really exciting to me and motivated me to want to put work into poems and read. For me as a writer, I’m just never going to be someone who sits in a solitary room with a desk by myself just writing. And I totally respect that embodiment of being a writer, but that’s just a certain kind of practice that’s really hard for me. So much of my experience with writing has always been about friendship and communion with other writers, sharing words and language and jokes and eating together. I don’t think I’d want to write if there wasn’t that sense of community, whether that’s informal like a potluck or through a more formal organization.

I’m wondering how community translates online for those who by choice or circumstance are isolated from physical spaces writers may share together. Even through your work as an editor, how can we bridge connection?

There’s definitely a responsibility that comes with the internet that I’d like to tag back to my earlier point about Google. Yes, the internet is serious and my practice of using Google is more of an entrance to certain questions. But when I’m thinking about editing and workshopping, then the internet becomes a tool to elevate that experience when the pieces are done with intentionality and respectfulness. Right now, I’m taking an online workshop with Winter Tangerine and Kundiman that centers around food for writers of Asian descent. There’s about thirty plus writers in it from all over the world. Writers in China. Writers in Australia. I’m in Nashville. Someone else is in New York. Texas. All around. Last night, we had a seminar online through Google Hangouts with poet Muriel Leung and it was really amazing. There’s a lot to be wary of on the internet but I also think technology is a tool that in some ways can bring together huge groups of people that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. That online space has proven to be really transformative for me to think about identity and hunger and desire and the narratives we tell as Asian American writers.

Currently, I’m co-editing the Nashville Review and I think what’s really cool about the rise of literary journals like the Nashville Review, all these online journals, is that it expands readership and access for those who might not otherwise find poetry. There’s a cultural interest and hunger for poetry in ways that’s really exciting to me that comes with its own set of responsibilities, obviously. As with anything, with that hunger, there comes a desire for a certain kind of narrative. If that’s a desire for a narrative of pain, then that’s not as productive for me in terms of it feeling like there’s a capitalization on certain kinds of narratives.

I’m glad you brought that up. I’m curious of that desire for pain especially in terms of cultural appropriation and also the access to trauma globally we have all the time. It’s hard to say what the responsibility of the writer is who is working in that space.

That is something I’ve really tried to process and work through. One, I’ve had to be aware that that hunger—that gross hunger, whether that’s in the publishing industry or a more cultural readership, that it exists. I ask myself, why am I putting the word “yellow” in this poem to describe a Chinese American speaker? I’ve had to trace where my own instincts are coming from within the writing itself. And some of those instincts are coming from literature I’ve read or ideas that have been perpetuated across time about Asian bodies. It’s really hard. It’s really hard to call yourself out on those instincts and do the work of understanding them and dismantling them in some ways.

I think that work will never be done for me, just as a reader who’s grown up in the world I’ve grown up in. There’s a lot of implicit narratives about myself and my body that I’ve just inherited from the world around me. But I do think because I’ve been trying to track the motivations behind using different language or images of race, there’s a certain sense of permission that comes with engaging in that practice. Now that I’ve done this work of interrogating my motivations, how can I write myself beyond that, beyond those narratives?

Sometimes that means not writing for a little bit and taking time to host a potluck or read a lot and not wrench the poem outside of me when it doesn’t want to be released yet. Other times, that means knowing that the poem is there, perched on my shoulder, and be willing to listen to that poem. It can be really hard to write a poem about trauma or violence. Those narratives are obviously very vulnerable and important and brave, but I think it comes down to understanding the motivations behind wanting to air a poem, to put it into words, and you have to question the motivation behind poems that are speaking to a sense of pain sometimes. Am I writing this because I’m responding to a sense of pressure that I should be writing this or am I writing it on my own volition and by my own terms?

That takes me back to where we started with your renewed interest in mythic poems and transformation within the poem. I wonder if that impulse to question your representations of pain and your draw to mythmaking are related to each other.

I think they are! I think I’m discovering they are in our conversation right now. Yeah, that resonates for me. I don’t know if I have anything else to say about that other than what a cool discovery. Thank you.

Ha! Well, even just from my own experience of writing about trauma, you sometimes just get so tired of the language of it, and you get to the point where you’re like…I don’t know what to say. That concept you mentioned of running out of language.

You’re right. There’s a scripted narrative that has sets of language that we’re taught in terms of how we talk about trauma and how we respond to trauma, and sometimes that can feel so exhausting and weary. I sometimes feel both things when thinking about recycling that language and so maybe some of the myth poems for me are also about subverting some of that. Or, just introducing surprise or escape routes for me within the world of trauma and violence and pain. Trauma narratives are so complicated and complex, but that pain isn’t singular, ever. Always tucked within that pain there’s a splatter of regret or confidence—there’s just so much there. There’s a tendency when we’re thinking about the dominant readership to quash that intensity. To say instead: this is just a trauma narrative. This is just about race. Introducing the mythic introduces a complexity, and as a reader, you’re forced to reckon with that on the page.


A photograph of the author, Juliana Roth, a white woman with long blonde hair.Juliana Roth is a writer from Nyack, NY. Currently, she lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Rutgers University. A 2018 nominee for Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net Anthology, her writing has appeared in Entropy, Irish Pages, The Atticus Review, The Establishment, among other publications.