“Poet of contradictions, poignant feeling, tenacity to beat you and unexpected humor.” This is how a 2015 Book review in Los Angeles the profile described marilyn chin. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon, Chin is one of the country’s most prominent Asian-American poets. She has just published her fifth collection of poems, A Portrait of Self as a Nation: New and Selected Poems (WW Norton, 2018), which includes poems spanning his three-decade career. She is renowned for her versatility, blending Eastern and Western literary traditions and aesthetics, and moving seamlessly from one poetic form to another: haikus, elegies, love poems, quatrains and sonnets.
Chin’s poems frequently address social injustices, such as sexism and racism, as well as themes of loss, exile, bicultural identity, and assimilation. And his work is often imbued with a sharp wit.
Members of the BU community can hear Chin reading her work Thursday night, when she headlines this semester’s Robert Lowell memorial poetry reading. The reading, at the Mugar Memorial Library, is free and open to the public and will be followed by a question-and-answer session and a book signing.
Chin says poetry has always been a part of her life. “My grandmother used to sing ancient Chinese poetry to me when I was a baby. She carried me on her back. I heard the music and drama of poetry and was inspired at a very young age.
The political nature of much of his work dates back to his childhood. “If you’re the smallest, darkest, quietest Chinese girl in the room, you’re definitely going to write from that trauma and have stories to tell,” she says. “I am a militant poet, I can’t help it. I am not a fabricated hipster poser. I’m the real deal.
This candor earned Chin an ardent international following. His work has been widely anthologized and is taught in classrooms around the world. In putting together her new collection, Chin says she wanted to “include the poems that teachers and students could share with meaningful discussion.” Asked what advice she gives to budding poets when she leads workshops, the longtime professor of creative writing (she is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University ) quotes William Butler Yeats: “Learn your trade”. She also advises young poets not to be in too much of a rush to get published and embrace rather than hide their past.
Chin was an accomplished translator before turning to poetry. She earned an undergraduate degree in Classical Chinese Literature from the University of Massachusetts, where she developed a love for Tang Dynasty poetry. Later, while working on an MFA at the University of Iowa, she met poet Ai Qing and began translating his poems. She said “the act of translation changed my life” and ultimately made her a better poet. “We immigrants are born translators, straddling many cultures, languages and concerns. I believe that this tumult and this richness enliven poetry.
Chin plans to read old and new poems at tonight’s event. And in honor of the series’ eponymous namesake, poet Robert Lowell, whom she describes as a “masterful sonneteer,” she plans to read hybrid sonnets she calls “sonnetnese,” adding with her trademark humor “Warning: they are more Chinese than Lowellesque.
Poet and former BU, Tara Skurtu will also read
The Lowell poetry series also features a recent alumnus of the creative writing program, and tonight it’s Tara Skurtu (GRS’14), who, like Chin, is a noted translator as well as an award-winning poet. It’s a role she initially resisted. “I never wanted to be a poet – in fact, I resisted that part of my identity for years,” says Skurtu, whose first collection of poetry, The amoeba game (Eyewear Publishing), was published last year. “It seemed like such a privileged and impractical thing, especially since I was a first-generation college graduate from an economically disadvantaged background.”
She was a pre-med student at UMass Boston, preparing to take the MCAT to enter medical school and writing poems on the side, when she attended a reading by Yusef Komunyakaa that changed her career trajectory. . Someone asked Komunyakaa when he knew he wanted to be a poet. He said there came a time when he realized he had to indulge in poetry.
Those words gave Skurtu the confidence to apply to BU’s creative writing program after failing to get into medical school. “Ultimately, I surrendered to poetry,” she says, adding, “It was the best decision of my life.”
The amoeba game was named one of the WBURs “5 Favorite Poetry Booksfrom 2017. Skurtu describes the collection as “an intercontinental cyclical journey”. The poems are largely autobiographical, exploring her childhood in South Florida, the incarceration of a brother, her own battle with a life-threatening illness, and her life in Romania, where she now lives and teaches.
Many of Skurtu’s poems begin with what she describes as “seemingly mundane moments…that could be completely ignored if left unwritten”. But these are times fraught with emotional conflict and subtleties. By focusing on the “specific and unexpected details and emotions of those moments,” she says, “the narrative comes to life and makes us feel things we can’t put into words.”
Skurtu uses writing as a way to deal with life’s challenges, but she says it’s also a means of transportation. “Writing…is a way to heal or at least heal parts of ourselves, and like the passage of time, it can help us through the toughest losses and bring us to a different state of mind. .”
As a BU graduate student, she received a Robert Pinsky World Fellowship in Poetry, which allowed her to spend a semester in a country she had never been to. Skurtu chose Romania, where his paternal great-grandparents are from. She returned in 2015 on an American Fulbright scholarship to teach poetry and literature and to write and translate, and after receiving a second Fulbright she stayed there. She recently opened her own creative writing workshop business, where she teaches individual and group workshops. In addition to writing poetry, she writes scripts and character dialogues for a game company.
Skurtu will read from The amoeba game and debut some new poems tonight.
“Marilyn Chin and Tara Skurtu are distinctive, super-energetic poets of their generations,” says Robert Pinsky, William Fairfield Warren Emeritus Professor, former three-time American Poet Laureate and Director of the Creative Writing Program. “Each of them embodies in a different way the dynamic and resourceful cultural reach of American poetry, and both are outstanding poets.”
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, with Marilyn Chin and Tara Skurtu (GRS’14), is tonight, Thursday, October 25, in the Richards-Roosevelt Room of the Mugar Memorial Library, 771 Commonwealth Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Presented by BU’s Creative Writing Program, it is free and open to the public. A dedication and reception follow.
The biannual Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading Series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
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