Michael Chang knows how to stay vulnerable to the reader without taking themself too seriously. In DRAKKAR NOIR, the poet’s forthcoming chapbook from Bateau Press (May 2021), Chang’s voice sparkles with wit, languaging the intersection between cultivated internet personas and real-life selves.
Here we see lovers quarrel over meal prep; indiscretions once smoothed over “come roaring back.” Futures are re-imagined, re-fashioned, nightmared over. Chang pushes against cliché, elevating each poem with a confessional intimacy (“Is he sad b/c he’s with you or b/c of the conditions under which you’re together?”) that unlocks charm and verbal felicity with enormous emotions.
Below, I speak with the poet about DRAKKAR NOIR, performative allyship, and the process of balancing tenderness and aggressiveness in their art.
Hi Michael, thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
I am in New York City and I am always great.
2021 is a big year for you: Your chapbook DRAKKAR NOIR won Bateau Press’s Boom Contest and is slated for release this May—and you have another chapbook, plus a full-length book of poetry, coming out in the world soon! Congratulations! How does it feel?
It’s obviously enormously exciting and I am very grateful to have the chance to lead readers on multiple paths of discovery, to expand rather than limit. I am happy that readers have been so welcoming and willing to meet the challenge of coming on this incredible journey with me.
How long did DRAKKAR NOIR take you to write, from start to finish? Which were the first and last poems written?
Hmmmm, these are all fairly new poems that came together beautifully in a few months.
Could you tell us about the process of arranging the poems in their final sequence?
I know people stress about poem arrangement a lot. I don’t do sections, they are dated. In terms of positioning think about air, levity, breath. Consider if tone-setting, big-picture poems that speak to your artistic vision belong in the front. Consider length, how poems appear on the page, a poem’s tone/tempo . . . I’ve said before: you don’t want every course to be Lobster Therimodor, and you want sorbet between courses as palate cleansers.
The poems in DRAKKAR NOIR are undoubtedly a celebration of queer joy, but there’s an underlying tension present throughout. I’m thinking especially of “遇见 Encounter”—“If I believe in America’s destiny, what does it mean for my own?” I’m curious about your process here—how do you unite disparate images while still staying in a major key?
First your mission in writing has to be very clear. Write towards your obsessions, lean into your impulses, and always have a north star of a broader mission (what you are trying to accomplish with your work, what impact you hope to have on the greater world). Then you can start thinking about how to enact change, how to propose a different view or perspective or a new kind of poetics to get us closer to that progress.
Your poetry is rich with fearless scenes that keep the reader enmeshed in the narratorial headspace throughout. In “Sean ★ Lennon”, for example, there’s an exquisite turn in the eighth stanza: “He says I don’t like how you come & go,/this isn’t, you know, Denny’s or something/ I say you’re messy & you meal prep, you cook for the week & it’s creepy.” Could you speak a little bit about collecting and placing such detail in your poems?
Writers and journalists and musicians and artists and people who are in the general business of creation tend to be attentive to detail. I like overhearing snippets of conversation, seeing fragments of somebody else’s experience out on the street or whatever, drawing from books and cinema. It’s important to do your homework, to familiarize yourself with your forebears and understand where you sit in the constellation of writers. It’s critical to recognize and be aware of other schools of thought, even if you don’t agree with them, to crystallize and hone your own thought process. Be meticulous, read everything. For me, detail is a hook, it’s something to get your attention, to draw you in, but then other components of the poem have to do the substantive work of persuasion.
In “Squeeze” you write, “I tell myself performative allyship is better than no allyship.” I was wondering how you might apply this line in the larger framework of the writing/publishing industry?
In many sectors it’s become increasingly obvious that there are bad actors who simply do not practice what they preach. In some cases, they are even actively working for “the other side.” In poetry it may be nepotism or anti-union/union-busting behavior or cultivating hostile work environments or racism or transphobia or a continued tone-deafness and willful ignorance about suppressing certain voices while uplifting the voices of some truly deplorable people. The list of abuses is long, and some entities are beyond redemption, let me be clear about that. At the same time, if these institutions of power are cracking their doors just a little, I think we have a duty to slip in and make ourselves known and do the work of transformation from the inside.
This feels like a terribly cheesy question, but one I feel compelled to ask: how do you balance sadness and humor in your poetry? How carefully do you consider where to place the punchline?
Yeah, it’s tough to do. It’s probably easier to take a step back and think about balancing tenderness and aggressiveness in terms of varying texture. You want a variety of textures and cadences in your poems, the highs and lows, the softs and hards. You don’t want something flat, one-note, something that doesn’t raise your heart rate. Pay attention to how a poem appears on the page, whether it has a strong opening, not one but several twists or volta, a solid but not necessarily neat finish. For me it’s critical to balance a confident, unabashed voice with a little bit of vulnerability, these flashes of awareness and self-deprecation, and that’s where the humor can come in.
Let’s talk about contemporary poetics. In “R’d V’lv’t” you mention “A lot of ppl write pretty words but don’t say shit”—could you elaborate? What speaks to you in a poem?
I like bold, high-energy poems that don’t take themselves too seriously. I like poems that challenge convention, that queer grammar and vocabulary and syntax, that have a point-of-view about our collective place in the world, have some opinion about the problems we face together as a society. It is of course easier to take the soufflé approach, to dress up a poem and not tackle some of the serious concerns and issues our world faces. But that is not my preferred method. I think it is very important to be candid and clear-eyed about our issues, but also offer a nod toward the future, a path forward, in an aspirational way. Ambition and aspiration are key drivers for my work.
Do you usually write a poem in a single sitting? Has your process been consistent throughout your life, or has this pace changed at all?
Yeah, my poems tend to come out fully-formed. That’s been pretty consistent. There are rare cases where I decide to change the totality of a beginning or ending, for example, but that only happens when my mood or opinion of something has shifted. For me, poems are a real-time response to something that has occurred, or a current event. In that sense, poems are at their most compelling when they are first complete.
Do you have a daily writing routine? A day, or place, or time, perhaps, where you prefer to write? What does your process generally look like? And, does it vary from project to project?
When I commuted to the office I used to have 30 minutes or so of uninterrupted reading and writing time, which was very nice. I don’t have a set writing routine, and I haven’t found any meaningful difference between writing day vs. night, that sort of thing. And I know we lapse into this tendency of referring to our artistic endeavors as “projects,” but if we’re being clear I think each thing we’re working on demands something different. I have definitely found that switching up my environment, like going to stay with a friend for a weekend or whatever, helps my process.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary poets?
I am grateful to every single person who has supported my work, made the effort to spend time with my poems, or otherwise expressed an interest in what I have to say.
I am especially thankful to the poets who have blurbed my books (there are others so stay tuned!): Hanif Abdurraqib, Dorothy Chan, Eduardo C. Corral, Muriel Leung, Randall Mann, Aaron Smith, Brian Tierney . . .
In terms of rising stars, I like reading Blake Levario. You should read his work. It has a point-of-view and so seamlessly weaves personal narrative and political opinion and pop culture and you’re just completely bought in by the end. It’s hard not to fall in love with Blake.
Lastly, are there any independent bookstores you’d like to recommend to our readers?
Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ. Not an independent, but Books Kinokuniya.
DRAKKAR NOIR is forthcoming from Bateau Press in May 2021. Pre-order here.