jasmine an | monkey was here
an excerpt & interview
MONKEY’S HAIR SPEAKS
Pluck me from your skin,
Sun Wukong. Hold me
to your lips. I will
change for you.
When they ask where?
I will say China.
I will forget Michigan
for you, Sun Wukong.
I will dig my placenta
the pine tree. My mother
buried it there.
I will eat it for you,
Pick me, Sun Wukong.
I have already changed
for you, you know.
Originally published in Anthropoid Collective
Sun Wukong is as prominent a character in these poems as the speaker themself. The speaker takes an informal tone when addressing him--there's a palpable familiarity. How does the speaker's relationship with Sun Wukong evolve throughout the chapbook? Does this affect the speaker's relationship with themself?
Throughout the collection, the speaker’s relationship to Sun Wukong flickers between reverence and rebellion. Sometimes I thought of their relationship as similar to that between a child and the cool, older cousin or sibling, moving from unconditional worship, to disillusionment, to (hopefully) an acceptance of both parties’ complicated, imperfect existence.
For me, as someone who grew up with Sun Wukong as a childhood hero, these poems were a way to build that relationship into something more textured. Over the course of the chapbook, the speaker slowly realizes that the childhood fantasy of becoming Sun Wukong is not possible (or even desirable), nor is Sun Wukong a pure manifestation of either good or bad. Instead, both the Monkey King and the speaker must deal with the messiness of being both/and – chaos/order, monkey/human, Chinese/American, etc. Neither I nor my speaker will grow up to be the Monkey King, instead we must grow through him, and if we wish it, bring him with us when we build ourselves into something more.
In "Monkey and I Share a Cell," the speaker says, "when I can't answer in the correct / language." The chapbook seems to concern itself with both correctness and rebelliousness. How important were these themes in the writing of the poems? And how did these ideas/concepts play a role in overall narrative of the collection?
I think at the heart of both the correctness and rebelliousness in the collection is a play with expectations: their weight and the shock (sometimes joyful, sometimes painful) of shattering them. When I began the process of writing this chapbook, Sun Wukong immediately leapt forward as a figure of rebellion against the model minority stereotype of the quiet, studious, obedient Asian (American). The Monkey King is loud, brash, and irreverent, arrogant, disobedient, and powerful in a way that was both gleeful and destructive. He trashes Heaven and gambles with the Buddha, fails, and perseveres. Within the overarching narrative of this collection, Sun Wukong serves as a catalyst, showing the speaker the possibility of rebelling against a limited and/or stereotypical vision of what is “correct” (even when that means rebelling against Sun Wukong himself) in order to find what feels truly correct for them to thrive.
How does mythology play a role in your writing?
In this collection, mythology was an anchor for me. Particularly because the mythology of the Monkey King was something passed down from grandparents on both sides of my family, writing alongside Sun Wukong felt like a way of connecting to and acknowledging cultural and familial roots. Even though the expression of the Monkey King’s mythology in these poems is unapologetically queer, midwestern and my own, it is deeply indebted to my Grandma for telling me Monkey King stories during bath time, to my Popo Grandma for similar stories and a much-abused VHS tape of his adventures, and to my mom for reading The Journey to the West out-loud to my siblings and me as a bedtime tale. Writing to/through Sun Wukong’s myths also allowed me to give shape to moments of my own and my family’s history that I didn’t quite have the words for without Monkey’s assistance.
Mythology often plays a similar role in my writing as form (see the great question on form below). It’s a powerful, playful scaffold for me to climb on and around and ultimately provides the very necessary bones for something unexpected and new.
Many of the poems are addressed directly to Sun Wukong. When in the writing process do you consider audience, if at all? Was audience a factor when writing or editing these poems?
If I’m being totally honest, my consideration of audience was secondary and happened during the editing and organizing phase. The raw first drafts of many of these poems were unfiltered conversations/arguments/prayers between Sun Wukong and the speaker. However, as I started sharing and editing these poems, I found that the reactions of various audiences to Sun Wukong were really powerful and taught me more about the poems, and what I wanted to accomplish by putting them together in a collection.
When I started reading these poems aloud for the first time, I found a gleeful type of kinship with audiences that included folks who’d also been raised on Monkey’s exploits or had lived with him as the background noise from their grandparents’ soaps. Finding these connections was and is always as exhilarating as it is unexpected. And, even when nobody in the audience has heard of the Sun Wukong, there is a mischievous satisfaction in exploding expectations of what is possible by introducing a Midwestern Monkey King, a trickster god from Michigan who will not sit down quietly but will instead play havoc with assumptions of Chineseness, Americanness, gender identity, and love.
This awareness of Sun Wukong’s impact on multiple audiences made crafting the collection a joyful experience as I considered both my own stake in the speaker’s journey, and also what different readers might gain in traveling through the poems and creating their own relationships with the Monkey King.
Some of the poems take on striking forms, particularly the opening piece, "We Are Born." Is form something you consider in the writing of poems or does it come later in the revision process?
I’m a form nerd! Sometimes to the extent that I need to remind myself to calm down and dial it back a bit… But the reason I love working in forms, any forms, is that I find the constraints, arbitrary as they may be, tend to push my thought process in unexpected directions. I usually take the form of a poem into consideration at or near the beginning of my writing process. If I’m scanning through a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary to find a word with the right syllable count or sound to fit into a form, the words I discover often unlock a second or third layer of thoughts that are usually much more interesting than my initial thought layer, which tends to fall into predictable patterns, favorite words and emotions. I love being surprised by a poem in the midst of writing it, and writing in form brings me endless surprises.
Jasmine An comes from the Midwest. She has also lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, studying language, urban development and climate change, and blacksmithing. Her chapbook, Naming the No-Name Woman, won the 2015 Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize, and her work can be found or is forthcoming in HEArt, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Nat. Brut and Waxwing, among others. She is an editor at Agape Editions and is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.