“On My Mind” by Robin Rosen Chang
On My Mind
By Robin Rosen Chang
Not things that float—moon, jellyfish, dust in sunbeam, skins of ice, skim on warm milk,
of cilantro, sound of o inside your mouth, but things that curl—sheep’s wool, seahorse
helix strand, three-banded
in mud, your
breath on cold nights,
and pulse—hummingbird wings, banana leaves in monsoon rain, high tide,
cloverleaf quasars, echo-
cardiogram of the sun, your hum, and things that intertwine—beet roots, staves &
staffs, cursive x’s, our arms
and legs, an eternal knot,
sheets at daybreak.
Getting to Know Robin Rosen Chang and Her Work
Robin Rosen Chang might sound like a familiar name to those of y’all who have been reading Yemassee for at least the past year; we had the privilege of publishing this poem, “On My Mind,” in issue 24.1, but now with proper formatting, making her our first poet to be published digitally. As an educator and artist, Chang’s work with language pushes boundaries and creates expansive worlds with an economy of language that is honestly awe-inspiring. –Charlie Martin, Senior Editor
Charlie Martin (CM): Where would you say your relationship with poetry originates? Did you start writing in verse from an early age, or did you end up finding poetry later on in your writing life?
Robin Rosen Chang (RRC): Unfortunately, I barely read a poem before I was an adult, but I have always been interested in writing (I even thought I’d go into journalism at one point). One year, a friend took me to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and that got me hooked on poetry. After writing for several years and attending a few summer residencies, I decided to pursue a low-residency MFA. I graduate in January from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.
CM: Whose work do you feel has been most impactful upon your own?
RRC: My answer to this question changes depending on where I’m at on any given day. Louise Glück has that blend of narration and lyricism that I tend to gravitate towards. Theodore Roethke and W. S. Merwin’s predisposition for nature resonates deeply. Even though much of my writing goes off in a different direction, I turn to them when I want to look at how one can harness the natural world yet write something that is more than a “nature poem.” I also admire Tomas Tranströmer’s treatment of the environment in his poetry, especially in “Baltics.” When I need to remember how a poem can wallop a lot of energy efficiently, I turn to Lucille Clifton. Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems always remind me of the importance of image (and language), as do Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s. When I need to be reminded to be brave in my writing (often!), I reread selections from Kelly’s book Song.
CM: In “On My Mind,” you weave sonically captivating language through a landscape lush with natural and cosmic imagery, creating surprise in ways that are tender and expansive, especially resonant in that final, image of “sheets at daybreak.” Can you tell us about your process working with these images?
RRC: This poem took a surprisingly long time to write. I began “On My Mind” on a beach several summers ago by recording images. However, I knew it needed to be more than a random list. It had to go somewhere and do something. The gestation period was substantial, but I discerned the differences and similarities in the images I had and developed my list. I eventually realized there was an unidentified “you” out there—that this was really a love poem.
CM: Besides being a poet, you’re an established educator who has worked with many students over the years. I am especially interested in your experience teaching in Kean University’s ESL program—how do languages besides American English impact your poetry? Do you write any poetry in languages besides American English? If so, what has that experience been like in comparison to your other pieces?
RRC: I taught in Kean’s ESL program for about twelve years before moving into their General Education program, but even while in GE, I taught some ESL sections. I’ve also studied some foreign languages—Arabic years ago and then Spanish. In fact, I’ve had a lot of exposure to Spanish since my husband is Peruvian and we’ve lived in Madrid and Barcelona, but my aural skills have far outpaced my reading and writing skills. That is basically an excuse to say no, I haven’t written in another language. I have, however, incorporated Spanish into some of my poems and absolutely love the musicality of its long vowels. In the future, I may try to dabble in translation.
CM: I love asking other poets about formatting, since I know we all work with the physical body of a poem in different ways. What drew you to the physical structure that you implemented in “On My Mind”? How does this piece compare in form to the other work you have written?
RRC: When I finally understood what the poem was about, I struggled for a while as I tried to figure out how to format it. I intuitively knew that it wasn’t meant to be in neat stanzas, but I hadn’t thought about a freer form with more white space until Daisy Fried suggested I experiment with this. Then I knew that “On My Mind” actually required that form. Generally speaking, however, most of my work tends to be in stanzas.
CM: We’ve talked briefly about your writing life, but we’d love to hear about your experiences with residencies you’ve attended—what is some of the best advice you’ve gained from one of these programs? What kind of advice would you offer writers who are looking to gain more experience through these kinds of programs?
RRC: Residencies are great for learning a lot in a short amount of time, and I highly recommend them. It’s good to keep in mind that many have scholarship programs and grants. My first experience was at the wonderful Frost Place Conference on Poetry. I gained so much from my week there and was extremely fortunate to be in a workshop with Vievee Francis. A few years later I attended Bread Loaf, where I got to work with Marianne Boruch, and that put me on the path to an MFA. At these residencies, I learned to think about craft elements in poems rather than focusing on aesthetic preferences. In other words, we look at what a poem is doing, not if we “like” it. Residencies also expose us to a lot of serious writers, and we become part of that community. I cannot overstate the value of a writing community—people who understand your writing needs and obsessions and who can respond to and meet your poems as they appear on the page.
CM: Do you have any upcoming readings or events that you’d like to promote, as well as any social media accounts you’d like your readers to follow?
RRC: At this time, I don’t have any events coming up besides a short public reading at Warren Wilson, something all graduating students do. I’m working on a website, but t’s not up yet. I’ll keep you posted.