What made you want to submit this poem to our Polyphonic feature?
Poet Ching-In Chen: My work invites multiple voices and languages, often to inhabit the same space, and I believe this is a result of growing up in a multilingual household. In my childhood, however, this experience was not celebrated outside of my family home, not celebrated in school and in our mainstream culture—and I learned to feel ashamed of my parents’ accents and desire for me to acquire their home language.
When my parents signed me up for Chinese school, I purposely tried not to un-learn what I was taught because I associated this other kind of knowledge with a kind of difference which invited bullying and racism—and with the kids at my school calling me names like ‘Ching Chong,’ ‘Chopsticks,’ ‘Chicken wings,’ ‘Chink-y’. My parents often asked me to norm their own language by editing out their grammatical abnormalities—and I realized that I also learned to norm myself by re-naming myself with an Anglo-Saxon name.
I wanted to submit a poem about the spectrum of experience that I needed to sift through (including a refusal to translate and celebrate) to arrive at a place as an adult where I could reclaim the name gifted to me by my family (which literally means ‘Happiness’) and celebrate it.
In what way do you see your visual response as “Polyphonic?”
Artist Barbara Cohen: More than one stroke, more than one line and more than one meaning, reaching out to more than one way of seeing and looking at my art. My process of working is a performance of (poly) dances from one painting to another, drawing and sketching at the same time and building blocks of three-dimensional objects on another side in sculpture (short-order cook as I call myself)… at some some point a harvest takes place and they all come to a finished surface.
What surprises you in the artist’s response to your poem?
Poet Ching-In Chen: I appreciated that the objects being depicted are not in clear focus, evoking multiple ways to see and understand, but I found the nuance and spectrum of color surprising—I had thought of the experiences detailed in the poem, especially of struggles with expectation and performance, visually in a very stark way.
How does a sense of polyphony enhance or challenge your creative work?
Artist Barbara Cohen: Polyphony enhances my work in that it provides the comfort to use multiple materials and intertwine them with one another. The use of many colors in many dimensions, overlaying colors onto old paintings, is the most gratifying technique of painting for me… call it recycling, but that is where the good is, the marks from the past and meeting the crispness of the present.
Poet Ching-In Chen: Because I grew up in a multi-lingual household, there existed simultaneous layers of understanding, articulation, and knowledge; these evoked multiple layers of conversation and thinking about how they respond to and shape each other. This has been an important one for my work.
What do you think is the role of art in regards to real-world, real-time events? In other words, what makes a “successful” occasional or political piece of writing or art?
Artist Barbara Cohen: The role is providing a different language which sometimes is more digestible to understand… it is that visual quality that translates to a personal connection to a community wanting to reach people and aid in pulling people together with compassion and understanding. Art touches the heart without words, and poetry is the artful manner of speaking without dogma.
Poet Ching-In Chen: Many powerful occasional or political creative works witness past and current injustices and give voice to those experiences in a way otherwise unacknowledged. More and more, I am interested in tapping into the creative speculative capacity to see how we can transform our own futures.
If the Broadsided collaboration were a piece of music, what would it be?
Artist Barbara Cohen: It’s all about the beat for me. The vibration of a beautiful jazz musician playing the trumpet of piano. It would be a Myles Davis (“Blue Notes”) or Bill Evans or better yet, the one and only Laura Nyro.
Poet Ching-In Chen: I’m thinking of a Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi and a song she sings called “Kantoi,” which uses Manglish (a Malay-English mix). Here is a karaoke sing-along version.
What is your favorite phrase or word translated from a language other than English?
Artist Barbara Cohen: “English is NOT my first language, drawing and painting are,” so let’s scribble if you want to chat.
Poet Ching-In Chen: “Kundiman,” which is a word for the beloved Asian American writing community I have been lucky to be part of and also refers to a classic form of a Filipino love song.
How did you choose the “Vectorization” site for your collaboration (pictured left) and, if anything were possible, where in the world would you most love to discover your broadside posted?
Artist Barbara Cohen: The piece I chose for the site was a collaboration with a vibrant activist who was amongst the first boat people to arrive in Lesbos, Greece and who greeted those first fleeing Syria. She was documenting her journey as these people came across the waters. She sent me pictures of these florescent life jackets drying on the fences above the shore. This was the beginning of a creation inside myself about fighting for safety in one’s life. Home has always been in my work as I am a Jew, a nomad by nature, seeking a safe place from world oppression. It gives me compassion for the refugees and immigrants turned away by this current government.
I would like my work to be experienced in schools with many young people of diversity who look and see and feel art and want to color and draw outside the box, outside the forced lines… kids that expand beyond any instruction about what is right or wrong when making art… it is then that true attraction can begin and develop.
Poet Ching-In Chen: I chose this site because it’s a small peaceful world just a few steps away from my regularly hectic worklife—and I want to be reminded that these other small worlds are possible. In that vein, I’d love to discover the broadside posted in unexpected places—among trees, grasses, or in venues in which I wouldn’t normally think of poetry.
Read any good books lately?
Artist Barbara Cohen: Tinman by the British writer Sarah Winman and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.
Poet Ching-In Chen: Gabrielle Civil recently invited me to be part of a new art project called the ‘small beauty book club’ where participants were invited to read Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang, which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. We read and discussed in small groups online and then created something inspired by the text. I loved diving into the text in these various ways within a community of engaged and committed readers, which feels like a very polyphonic approach to me.
Seen any good art lately?
Artist Barbara Cohen: Yes, my good friend Berty Skuber from the Emily Harvey Foundation sent me an obscure picture of a shoe-shape with a web of lace like lines throughout and around the object. She found it in Kythera on the beach where Aphrodite emerged from the sea… she kept it in her left hand all the way from Kythera to Athens to Venice…
Poet Ching-In Chen: These sculptures of “hybrid devices” by Rhonda Wheatley as part of the “Silos” exhibit at Art League Houston. They speak to my experience of living in these times, of re-purposing the past for speculative uses.
Anything else? (Here, we invite the collaborators to invent a question, add a comment, or otherwise speak to what the questions so far have not tapped about their Broadsided experience).
Artist Barbara Cohen: How could others (business people, lawyers, technicians, hairdressers, doctors, etc.) collaborate in everyday life to perform in their creative way to bring more peace in community without feeling restricted or self-conscious? Why leave it up to artists and poets? There might be a deeper form of heartfelt work that could break down these people who are hard-lined in their thinking and soften them to the needs and desires of everyday people.
Poet Ching-In Chen: What are your ideas for speculative creative strategies for transforming this world into the world we’d most like to live in?