Born in Hong Kong in 1955, poet Marilyn Chin came to the United States soon after with her family. One of the first signs of the change in location was her father's insistence that her name be changed from Mei Ling to Marilyn. "He thought it was necessary for us to change our names when we went to school," she said. In the poem "How I Got That Name: an essay on assimilation" she remembers her father as a man obsessed with the blonde bombshell of the day-Marilyn Monroe. She added that her sister's name was changed to May Jayne, for another star, Jayne Mansfield.
And while Chin says she now accepts the name and no longer seeks to change it, she remains an activist poet who sees herself pitted against the dominant culture in which she lives.
"The poets I read when I was younger were Adrienne Rich, June George... activists who took me under their wing," she said. "I think it's very important to have an activist voice in American poetry."
She also noted that her take on poetry included the central philosophy that poetry must do something. "I don't quite believe in art for art's sake. I believe there must be a higher order. What we write can change the world. That may sound a little idealistic but I feel it's very important that poetry make something happen."
And true to her activist form, Chin has complaints of her fellow American poets, whom she sees as increasingly self-satisfied and 'suburban' in the topics they deal with.
"I have a problem with American poetry being self-satisfied, not pushing the limits," Chin said. "I write some 'suburban' poetry also. That happens to all academic poets in academic settings. I just think that poets really need to relate to their work." Her criticism of current American poetry also extends into a meditation on the construction and style of poetry. " I think there needs to be a dedication both content-wise and form-wise. I just think that poetry is a vibrant art, vibrant and complicated. But I don't think American poets have taken advantage of the many possibilities that poetry can offer."
As an instructor in the Master of Fine Arts Program at San Diego State University, Chin also tries to teach her students "to pay attention to what they're reading," as well as exposing them to many different forms that cross cultures and languages. "I try to stress that they learn in another language and relate to poetry in another language. I think it's very important that we think about ourselves as globalizing."
Copyright © 1998 by The Chronicle (Duke University)