“our ♥s odd & splendid wouldn’t u say … : A Conversation with Michael Chang about Synthetic Jungle”— curated by Tiffany Troy

Fence poetry editor Michael Chang is the author of ALMANAC OF USELESS TALENTS (CLASH Books, 2022) and SYNTHETIC JUNGLE (Northwestern University Press, 2023).  They are also responsible for the chapbooks EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS (GreenTower Press, 2024) and SWEET MOSS (Anstruther Press, 2024).  Their forthcoming full-length collections include TOY SOLDIERS (Action, Spectacle, 2024) and THE HEARTBREAK ALBUM (Coach House Books, 2025). 

Like its psychedelically bright-colored cover of a cactus on top of a plaid backdrop, Synthetic Jungle code-switches between English and Chinese, the profane and the cardinal. With “jealousy its engine,” Michael Chang deftly utilizes lists, text message lingo, and the page as a canvas in Chang’s exploration of “orogeny of passion, launched from longing to longing.”

Tiffany Troy: How does “CHARM AGAINST TOO MANY APPLES” set your readers up for what is to follow in Synthetic Jungle?

Michael Chang:  I think it immediately alerts readers that they’re in for a different kind of ride.  The poem manages to be both bold and subtle.  I don’t want to get too explainy, but “black-white, swallowing everything” is perhaps a reference to how Azns and others are sometimes overlooked in conversations about racial justice.

TT: As an Asian-American poet, how do you think the writing/reading of poetry contributes to the conversation about racial justice, if at all?

MC: As individuals we certainly have a responsibility to–at a minimum–care about what’s going on in the world.  As a poet I comment on issues that matter to me–but I’m not leaping at the chance to address every single problem out there.  We don’t live in a vacuum or have horse-blinders on, but we’re going to be judicious in what we critique and how we do it.

TT: The dichotomy of bold/subtle is interesting and you play with that contrast quite a lot in your collection. I’m wondering if we could turn next to the writing process: could you speak to the process of writing and putting together this collection?

MC:  I often think about my work through the prism of fashion, and I’m really attracted to the high-low mix when putting an outfit together.  In much the same way, my poems hit many registers and tones so surprise can come about in an organic way.  The poetry I like to read disrupts notions of what poems should look or sound like, and the range of territory I cover in my own work is vast by design.

TT: I admire how organic your poems are, in tone and register. Which poets inspired you in the making of Synthetic Jungle? How do they interrupt the paradigm of poetry and expand its range?

MC:  In terms of ordering poems in a manuscript, I noticed that Merrill tended to have the shorter (“easier”) poems up front, so I was thinking about that when I was putting the collection together.  As far as substantive influences go, I generally have a bias toward urban, big-city poets but I also read a lot of Merwin.  I like studying poets that lived dissimilarly from me, whether temporally or based on other circumstances.  It is through this contrast and friction—but also identifying points of resonance—that I build out my own views.

TT: Speaking of friction, your views is also expressed through language-switching into the Chinese, some of which you gloss and others not. What do you think this adds to Synthetic Jungle? And what are some strategies for poets who are writing in English as well as non-English?

MC:  I’m not really interested in artifice.  I think a what-you-see-is-what-you-get ethos is appealing.  For me, a good litmus test for whether a poem’s language works is whether you would recite or repeat it to a friend at a bar while keeping a straight face.  A lot of poems out there fail this test.

TT: As a poet who also works as an editor, how do you suggest wannabe poets pass the litmus test of poetic language?

MC:  I’d focus on writing as close to one’s natural impulse or voice as possible, and forget what everyone else is doing.

TT: Poems in Synthetic Jungle feel very rooted in New York, referencing specific neighborhoods in contrast with places the speaker traveled to. Do you feel attuned to the New York School of Poetry? How do you feel place infiltrates or influences your poems?

MC:  Denise Duhamel has very graciously said that I’m Fourth Gen New York School.  Personally, I simply consider the work NEW New York School, because while I love O’Hara, Schuyler, and so on, I don’t know that they would’ve necessarily considered someone like me (demographically) a peer or thought of me at all.  My speakers tend to express a sentiment of “hey, I’m happy existing alongside you,” and place is a key part of that calculus.

TT: I think you’re exactly right about that, and there’s definitely a sense of proximity that your poetry has, which is in turn supported by the voice of intimacy.

MC:  Immediacy is important to me, something that captures the present sense.  It’s why I don’t edit–no point in fine-tuning passages about a date I really enjoyed, say, 5 weeks ago, for example.  In a way the poems function as ephemera.

TT: Poem as ephemera is such an interesting concept! How do you go about the revision process for your poems?

MC: I don’t revise the text of poems very much at all.  On occasion, I’ll change up the way a poem looks.  Sometimes I’m done with a poem and the words feel right but something just seems off about it—in those situations I try to be formally inventive and challenge myself to present the poem in novel ways.

TT: For newer poets, can you describe what are some challenges that you have given yourself to reinvent the poem, so to speak?

MC: Just breaking all the rules and bad habits writers pick up over the years.  Rethinking and reshaping grammar, tone, syntax . . .

TT: Got it! In closing, do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?

MC:  The right audience will find you!!  When I was starting out I would get discouraged by rejections—looking back now, it feels very silly.  Once you realize that some people won’t “get” your work no matter what you do, you’ll be more confident in your own practice and process.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor of Tupelo Press, Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and Assistant Poetry Editor at Asymptote.