Ten Questions for Marianne Chan


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Marianne Chan, whose debut poetry collection, All Heathens, is out today from Sarabande Books. In All Heathens, Marianne Chan weaves history with personal narrative to map the heart of the Filipino and Filipino American global community. Despite the many distances, there is enduring kinship across the time and space of the diaspora: “Around the world, we are the same people,” she writes. “We have merely moved our feet.” And whether reimagining the origin story of Eve, charting the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in the Philippines, or narrating her own memories, Chan proves that history is not static, but rather a living home. “Alive on every page, this book is a song that refuses to sing of anything less than the true, the piercing and true,” writes Chen Chen. Marianne Chan earned her BA in English from Michigan State University and her MFA in poetry from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her poems have appeared in various publications including the Indiana Review, the Margins, Poetry Northwest, and the Rumpus. From 2017 to 2019, she served as poetry editor for Split Lip Magazine. Chan lives in Cincinnati, where she is pursuing a PhD in creative writing. 

Marianne Chan, author of All Heathens. (Credit: Clancy McGilligan)

1. How long did it take you to write All Heathens
The oldest poem in All Heathens is “With,” which I wrote in 2014 while I was pursuing my MFA. The newest poem in the collection is “The Lives of Saints,” which I wrote in summer 2018. So, I guess this means that it took me four years to write the book. However, I should say that, until I took James Kimbrell’s manuscript workshop at Florida State University in 2018, I didn’t devote all of my writing time to this project. Before that workshop, I wrote regularly, but I wasn’t really writing towards a larger manuscript. Kimbrell’s workshop helped me to see how some of my poems worked together thematically. During that semester, I wrote two poems that I believe are the heart of All Heathens: “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010” and “Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen Peoples.” After I’d written those poems, I saw how the collection could be structured, and I finished the book at the end of that semester.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I worried a lot about getting things right. Several of the poems in All Heathens incorporate facts about Magellan’s circumnavigation and his “discovery” of the Philippines, as told by Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler. I am not a historian or an expert in Filipino history, and sometimes I would misremember information. I kept having to go back to Pigafetta’s Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation and other resources to make sure I was getting details right.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
My goal is to write at least twice a week. Because I’m currently in a PhD program at the University of Cincinnati and my schedule is hectic, I’m inconsistent about when and where. I often write in my living room next to my sleeping cat, but sometimes I bring my computer into my bedroom or to a coffeeshop. I’m a moody person, and the places I write depend on mood. I wish I could simply walk into an office every day and feel ready to go, but that’s just not the case for me, and I know that by now. 

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m currently reading Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón and Kathryn Cowles’s Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World, both of which are spectacular. 

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
I’ll take this question as an opportunity to say that Filipinx/Filipinx American literature should be read and taught and written about much more than it currently is. To name one writer, I’m in love with Nick Joaquin and his strange, creepy, feminist, political stories in The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic.  

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA? 
I loved my experience in my MFA program at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. The program gave me the time and space to develop better writing practices, to deepen my understanding of literature, and to develop relationships with mentors and other writers. That said, I don’t think MFA programs are beneficial for all writers, so my answer would really vary from person to person.   

7. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry? 
I think mental health should be more of an emphasis. I’ve been a part of a few different writing communities and I’ve seen people struggle with addiction, anxiety, or depression, myself included. I think it’s incredibly important for programs in particular to emphasize wellness and self-care and make counseling resources more readily available. 

8. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)? 
It is important to me for an editor/publisher to be excited about the book! I remember when Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner from Sarabande Books both called me to ask if All Heathens was still available. I will never forget how excited and supportive they were about the project. Since then, I’ve been confident that they’d do a good job designing, editing, and promoting it, and I’ve been so grateful to the staff at Sarabande for everything they’ve done for my book. 

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? 
Clancy McGilligan, my partner, whose novella History of an Executioner was published by Miami University Press this year, is often the first person to see my writing. I trust his opinion, and I know he’ll be honest—even if he knows I’ll be angry about it later.   

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
A few weeks ago, I read a craft essay called “Intersectional Bribes and the Cost of Poetry” by Sagirah Shahid for an awesome creative writing pedagogy class, taught by Leah Stewart, which I’m taking at the University of Cincinnati. In this essay, Shahid offers some advice about listening/reading. I’m not sure if it’s the “best piece of writing advice” I’ve ever gotten, but it certainly is wonderful, so I thought I’d share it: “Read widely, certainly across disciplines and absolutely beyond the United States and Europe and without a doubt within your own cultural traditions, but also listen to the album, the chapbook, the holy book—listen to that textbook that actually is not a textbook but is the person sitting right next to you on the bus ride home. There is a lesson there, that might also be a poem but you will never arrive to the poem if you aren’t listening.” 

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