Writing as an Act of Research

A conversation with poet Carlina Duan.

Carlina Duan is a writer-educator from Michigan. She is a poet, a sister, a teacher, a cookbook collector, a fan of basketball and Michigan gardens. The author of poetry collections I Wore My Blackest Hair (Little A, 2017) and Alien Miss (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2021), her poems have been featured in Poetry Foundation, Poets.org, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, and other places.

Carlina is the recipient of a Fulbright teaching grant as well as an Academy of American Poets Prize. She holds a BA in Honors English & Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Poetry from Vanderbilt University. Carlina is currently a PhD student in the Joint Program in English and Education, where she studies community-engaged writing and documentary poetics.

In Carlina’s work, you will find questions of inheritance, authorship, legacy, and history. She wrestles and confronts the archive. She writes about her own miseducation in public school and grapples with why poetry matters. The poems overflow with courage and urgency. At the hands of students, especially those investigating their identities, these poems will invite curiosity, deep empathy, and discovery.

Over Zoom this winter, Duan and I spoke about why poetry actually matters and how it can be a living thing.

Laura Winnick (LW): Congratulations on the publication of your second book, Alien Miss! I wanted you to share what you feel like is the difference between your two books. In your first book, I Wore My Blackest Hair (IWMYBH), you wrestle with the tensions of being between cultures, life chapters, childhood, and adulthood. It’s really a coming-of-age book. Your second book, Alien Miss, is more about, not necessarily something that is static, but things that are heavier. Your focus is more on lineage, immigration, and identity. So they feel different for me. Do they feel different to you?

Carlina Duan (CD): I love that question, and I’ll just say first I love that we’re having this conversation—thanks for thinking of me and inviting me to be part of it.

I think in terms of the two books, Alien Miss is an extension of the work that I started to do in IWMYB. IWMYB was this book where I started to think about coming of age and what it felt and meant to be the daughter of Chinese immigrants growing up in the Midwest and coming into my own body and my own growing pains. With Alien Miss, I was interested in some of those same resonances, but I wanted to kind of take it further. I was interested in history and specifically who gets to write history. Who gets to hold history? Who maybe has the ability to disrupt these preserved narratives of history that we keep inside museums and history textbooks?

I had already been interested in those questions when I started to write IWMYBH. I was learning about the Chinese Exclusion Acts for the first time as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. I had come up through public education without ever learning about the Chinese Exclusion Acts. I was a college student when I first started learning about this pivotal part of Asian-American history. It was really through my initial discovery of this history and writing my way into it that led me to these other questions around intergenerational lineage. What does it mean to cross these borders—between unknowing and knowing your own history—as a citizen or resident of the United States?

LW: I’m curious if any of your research led you to do archival work and what kind of archival work you did?

CD: Yes, totally. In terms of the archives, I started to discover other poets who are writing into this tradition of documentary poetry, and that really got me interested in how poetry can become an act of research or maybe a creative act. I was thinking a lot about the historical imagination with regards to the archive. For Alien Miss, I was doing a ton of research on the Chinese-American archive of the 1880s, sifting through documents, both digitally and physically. I was able to visit New York and go to The Museum of Chinese in America, in Chinatown. So I was looking at documents that were either legal documents or communal poster boards around the time, expressing anti-Chinese sentiment or expressing protest against Chinese workers who were coming to the United States, and I was also looking at archives from Chinese folks who were coming to the U.S. and trying to protest against ill treatment.

I have one poem in the book, “Alien Miss Confronts the Author,” where I was really trying to capture what it felt like to do some of that historical research. I quote directly from some of the specific documents that I was working with. I was reading some articles, as well, that were just thinking through what were the experiences actually like of detainees who were at Angel Island? What were the broader historical, cultural, and social factors that made up the textures of life around the time, in the U.S. and specifically in the American West? Doing that immersive work in the context of the poem became really curious and kind of eye-opening to me. I was also reading poets like Layli Long Soldier and Solmaz Sharif, who were working to “extend the document.” What could it look like for poetry to function as a form of, maybe, subversion or extension of historical documents?

LW: I think that is so fascinating because it seems like, as you were writing the second book, you were also reconfiguring your approach to the poem itself.

CD: Totally. With IWMYBH I had the constellation of themes in mind, and I was trying to write my way around the themes. With Alien Miss, I started with this huge question and that question of history: who’s getting to write these stories and who’s getting to hold them true for decades? And why, for me as a product of the American public education system, did I not really learn publicly about these histories until I was in my early 20s? How has language worked historically to either commit violence or to create joy or to create community? I was thinking about placing the language of another kind of document in conversation with the poem and maybe even taking it into the poem directly and then seeing what would happen to my poet self, who was kind of looking at that language and thinking, “What should I do with this?”

LW: I love that question, what would happen to my poet self? That’s really inspiring and exciting about what we can do to reorient our own historical understanding. The initiative you had to return to those questions through this work feels like the thread continued from your first book.

So, in addition to being a published poet, you’re currently a doctoral student in the University of Michigan’s Joint Program in English and Education, where you study community-engaged writing and documentary poetics. This is really what I’m excited to get into today!

Let’s start with your education and relationship to poetry as a younger student. Can you describe the poetry education you received in school?

CD: I think I have a pretty unique experience of finding poetry in high school. I had a high school teacher who changed my life. His name is Jeff Kass; he’s still teaching in the Ann Arbor public school district. He also at the time was directing the Literary Arts Project at the Neutral Zone, and the Neutral Zone was a youth arts space outside of school, kind of like a community center for young people.

In high school, I was able to start to see why poetry actually matters, how it can be living and alive in the world. We read a lot of contemporary, live poets, poets that I had never even heard of, and we weren’t necessarily approaching reading the poem from only a point of let me analyze this, let me deconstruct this and talk about how it’s working. We asked, Why is it moving me? What is the sonic life of the poem? How are the sounds inviting a sense of play and a sense of camaraderie, even in the room? Because I was reading poets who were younger poets, queer poets, and Asian American poets, I really started to see poetry transforming into something that is a lineage of people telling stories and seeing myself as a part of that lineage.

LW: It’s so heartwarming. You and Jeff make such a case for how transformative it can be when teachers are writers, when teachers are doing what they are teaching. Teachers don’t necessarily have to be successful; you don’t have to be a famous poet. I also am like, it’s so hard to be a teacher these days, that I feel I have to bring that to this interview. The load on teachers is so challenging that it’s barely sustainable to be a teacher in the pandemic. So how do you do anything else? How can you be a mentor and a shepherd in these other ways of being creative?

CD: Jeff Kass was also delivering pizzas and driving a Lyft  because it’s just not sustainable to be a public high school teacher! He wrote a book called Teacher/Pizza Guy, which is a brilliant book of poetry about the American public education system and capitalism and what it means to be an educator right now.

I’m trying not to over glorify the work of teachers and say it’s all heartwarming and inspiring. I know that for me, I wouldn’t have been creating books or doing this doctoral program I’m doing right now if I hadn’t been 15 years old and had someone I really respected who was an educator saying, “Hey come to the Neutral Zone, we’d love to hear your poems.” I remember walking through the halls of my high school and hearing Mr. Kass say, “Hey poet! What’s up poet!”

Teaching is such a creative act in itself, it takes up so much creative energy, that I have all the kudos in the world for teachers who are able to create their classrooms and make them into open spaces for students to walk into and create. To still have those teachers doing the creative labor of facilitating workshops, creating writing prompts, bringing in guest writers, doing the writing alongside us. That’s something I remember from Jeff’s class and the Neutral Zone. Whenever we had a guest instructor, they would come and give us a writing prompt, and they would do the prompt alongside us and then we’d all go around and everyone would share at least a line from what they wrote. That made a huge impression on me in terms of the collaborative process, what it could be like to write with your teachers.

LW: Do you write with your students?

CD: Yes! That’s a tradition that’s been passed down from my teachers to me, I want to hopefully pass on to my students if they become teachers, to keep that thread going. I think it’s really important to me to co-create the space of learning.

LW: What are your ideas about a poetry pedagogy you’re most interested in developing and facilitating?

CD: I’ve been thinking a lot recently, in the context of teaching my students at Michigan right now, how I want to shift away from these cut-and-dry workshop models. What could it look like to be more innovative and imaginative in terms of encouraging students to move beyond that framework? In a poetry workshop, let’s say, we sit around the table, everyone is assigned a day, and on your day, you bring in your poem, you maybe read it out loud, and then you start to get verbal or written feedback.

In the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of history. How are different traditions of reading and even what we deem to be innovative and what we deem to be interesting and successful in a poem, how are those types of preferences learned? What are the kinds of historical and often very political frameworks that have informed literary traditions in America? I have not often been privy to the backend process that has informed the shaping of American poetry culture. Teaching is, of course, a huge way in which we teach what’s “good” literature and what should be “exemplary.” 

I’ve been reading Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World. His book really inspired my thinking of my own teaching of poetry. His argument is we can’t say that craft is neutral, we can’t say that teaching a writer her craft is an “ahistorical process.” It’s very much influenced by race, gender, and politics, so if you want to teach a writer her craft, you have to be mindful and bring process and history to the forefront of what you teach.

I’m teaching a documentary poetry class right now; I’m thinking a lot about this question of how can I give students more alternatives to the traditional writing workshop and also invite them to be more attentive to their processes and experiments as writers? There is something about the “traditional” format, where we sit in a circle and talk, that feels like it overrides a student’s access or potential to think differently about what are other ways that they can even enter into a conversation about a poem or enter into my poem other than through written or verbal feedback.

What that looks like for me has been shaped by some of my teachers at the University of Michigan, Tung Hui Hu and Aisha Sloan. For a workshop, giving students a menu of different options, as Aisha did for one of my creative writing workshops, asking them to choose from a range of different options for the workshop. You could bring in a list of the different types of media that have informed your thinking around the work. You could bring in other forms, a piece of art, rather than talk about the poem itself.

Those are some small examples and interesting ways of inviting students to think more imaginatively about what this can be. I think I’m trying to invite play and imagination into my own pedagogical practice.

LW: Can you share more about documentary poetry and its pedagogical implications?

CD: Documentary poetry is a really blurry genre. It’s a genre of poetry in which poets are acknowledging or using historical documents in their poems, typically to illuminate a place or moment in time or even a community. It’s poetry that is affiliated with the archive and associated with capturing real life narratives or historical periods. It’s like what you would think about with documentary film but documentary with language arts, capturing or portraying something about a moment in time or people or place. It is a really thorny genre. I think what’s interesting about the genre is it just contains all these questions about peoples’ anxieties of what can be possible in a poem.

A tension that I’m facing within my own work of documentary poetry is that my entrance into poetry itself stemmed partially from this emphasis on joy and pleasure, and I think within the realm of documentary poetry as I’m teaching this class right now, it’s really heavy stuff, and rightfully so, as there are so many traumas and violences that have happened in the American archive alone. I’m struggling to understand how can I teach this when it’s so violent? I don’t want to diminish or erase that. How do I pace or create a class space where we have to just talk about dark, hard, difficult content and think through then what is the work of the poet in recovering or uncovering in attempting to make sense of these violences, and also think about the action of language?

LW: Thinking about the tension of holding the violence with innate joy, celebration, or transformation (not that violence doesn’t have transformation), how do you do that?

CD: That is a pedagogical question I have right now. Documentary poetry is doing such interesting, critical, subversive work of going back to the archive and saying, pay attention in this different way, casting this new gaze. It’s saying, look at the ways that oftentimes official records fail to capture or even illuminate anything about the living communities they are purportedly supposed to represent. Documentary poetry can be crucial to doing that work: Look here, look again. The pedagogical dilemma that I’m facing is how do I make room for poets and poems who are also rooted in joy? How do I balance this? To create a documentary poem, do you have to innately write about suffering and violence?

A friend recently sent me this really beautiful interview with Miriam Kaba. She was talking about hope as a discipline. I’m curious what my students today are going to write about the pandemic right now, tomorrow, in a year. The courage of young people to put words to what they are experiencing right now. I’m learning from them.

Laura Winnick

Laura Winnick is an English teacher-turned-librarian-turned-technologist who likes to get tweens excited about critical digital literacy. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Publisher’s Weekly, Women's Review of Books, and Library Journal.