Gutter Poetry for Dirty Minds
Michael Chang invites you into their clique in "Almanac of Useless Talents"
The poems in Michael Chang’s latest collection, Almanac of Useless Talents, are punk jazz or noise hip hop—avant-garde and anarchist. Intertextual and reality. Surreal and real. Ugly and pretty. Crystal-clear and obscure. Confident and confessional. Serious and absurd. I speak in binaries, but Chang’s poems are anything but. They deconstruct binaries. Poetry is often the art of containment. Chang’s poems cannot be contained. They bust through barriers and borders, defiantly.
After reading Almanac of Useless Talents, readers will want to be friends with Michael Chang. While many will initially be drawn in by Chang’s witty and daring critiques and comebacks, they’ll stay for what Chang calls “radical candor.” But with Chang’s poems, honesty doesn’t sacrifice complexity. They use an array of techniques—fragmentation, disparate forms (confession, list, anecdote, observation, manifesto), sampling, multiple languages (English, Chinese, French, and all of the languages of their everyday life via text, social media, and interactions with friends, lovers, and haters)—to display a complex, authentic self that readers feel connected to and curious about.
With their juxtaposition of high art and pop culture, confidence and vulnerability, reading Almanac of Useless Talents is a communal experience. Chang may invite you into their club, but they reject the cultural capital that comes with being in the know, which keeps readers on the hook and keeps them from getting too comfortable. Chang’s maximalist, rhythmic phraseology creates mystery, resists defining, resists a solitary takeaway, which teaches readers that a lot more homework, multiple readings must be done to fully “get it.” With each reading, something new is discovered, a hidden vulnerability juxtaposed with an unapologetic declaration. Yet, they resist the idea that everything we say is supposed to have meaning, is supposed to follow an arc. This is, after all, an almanac of useless talents. It isn’t a forecast for the future, but a record of the range of human emotions, the ways we hurt each other, and the ways we get to know each other better. From what those in power may deem useless and disregard, comes Chang’s “gutter poetry / for dirty minds.” I invite you to giddily bask in the grit.
Always an air of performance, always a good time, ultimately, Chang’s speakers seek connection and meaningful relationships. I met Chang in a workshop with Hanif Abdurraqib. We’ve been friends since. It’s been a pleasure seeing their speakers evolve with each collection of campy literary magic. I anxiously await their next rendition in their upcoming collection Synthetic Jungle. We reunited over Zoom to discuss Almanac of Useless Talents.
Kate Carmody: I love the cover! Could you just tell me a little bit about it? You’ve mentioned before that you’re involved in the art direction of the covers of your collections.
Michael Chang: The press works with a really good illustrator who lives in Spain and does all of their covers. I wanted a departure from his usual style, which is kind of a heavy, darker, more gothic vibe. I wanted something lighter and refreshing. I wanted something with a fox that wasn’t just a straightforward animal situation. With my last collection, Boyfriend Perspective, the cover is a play on perspectives using fish imagery. With this one, I wanted something that had levity, but was also visually interesting that you can look at again and again because that’s the way I think about my poetry—you read it and whatever you need to get from it, you get. If you come back half a year later, you take something different away.
In terms of the cover, I said the palette I wanted, and then we jointly decided on the image from Asian mythology of the fox spirit holding the fox, but they’re also a fox. So, it’s a play on identity and how you have the speaker, but then you have all these other layers.
KC: Something that people might say doesn’t belong in poems is gossip. What role does gossip play in this collection? And what makes gossip so pleasurable?
MC: Poetry is an interesting medium to work in because it’s very insular. With the mass market fiction titles, you get almost a sanded-down version of what an author’s true representation would be. But with poetry, if you’re working in this medium, you have the advantage of knowing that most of the people reading it are going to be poets. That’s a limitation on the commercial stuff, but on the artistic side, there is a vast amount of freedom because you can talk in a way that’s clubby and clique in a good way, but also tell people what you’re about. It’s a balance of knowing that this world is very small and we know each other—that cliqueness—but also having your own independent voice, brand, and personality that’s unique, so you’re not writing the same poems as other people in your friend group.
What makes desire a subject that you are continually interested in exploring and what aspects of desire or maybe questions about desire were you interested in tackling in Almanac of Useless Talents?
MC: Desire, whether you’re a writer or not, is very common in the sense of we understand it or try to understand it. But I think of it like making a perfect pant. There’s no one perfect khaki. Right? We can talk about the color, the cut, the inseam, the details. It’s this amalgamation of what makes a good khaki. Part of the fun is that there’s no right answer. The other part of the fun is that it’s always shifting. It’s a constant refinement with the times. What is a good khaki now is not what’s going to be a good khaki five years from now. I think it’s constantly working at this thing and really trying to get a handle on how we think about romance and desire to make it feel timely, of the moment, and something we should look at so it never feels tired or stale.
It’s an evolution of how I feel about desire and how other people feel about it. I was at a reading with a colleague of mine and they said that the highest honor is being a love poet. In many ways, that’s true because you can write about political issues, but at the end of the day, I think what really speaks to people is the romance, the storytelling, and how these different pieces fit together.
KC: Your poems showcase and celebrate queer love.
MC: I think that’s true. I also think my poems make it such that queerness isn’t really a thing. Queerness is kind of like the default. It’s not: Hey, look at this thing on this podium. It’s just a given. I guess is the easiest way to put it.
KC: It’s your everyday life.
MC: Yeah. These assumptions that we have going into it as a reader or as a poet are almost erased. In my poems, at least in the world that I try to develop in these poems, queerness is just there rather than some kind of spectacle. A lot of queer poets feel the need to make a big deal out of something that I think the speakers in my poems take for granted. Queerness is almost taken for granted. It’s very fluid. Everyone in my poems seems to be happy, tries to be, or is getting there. And I think there’s this overwhelming sense that this is the world.
Recently, there have been a lot of titles about the end of the world. I’m not interested in apocalyptic narratives. When I read those poems, I think, Okay, it’s the end of the world and there’s this rage. Great. But what are you doing about it? Why do we care? My poems have a tone of celebration versus defeat. I think that’s a difference. Another difference is, like I’ve said before, other people’s poems are getting angry, but mine are about getting even. My poems are very clear-eyed and honest about what we’re facing, but we’re also very optimistic about the gains that we’re going to make and where things are going. I’m never about the end of the world; that doesn’t even factor in.
KC: Your poems are conversational and confessional—we know what the speaker wants, who they want, who they’ve slept with, who they love, who they hate, who’s broken their heart, et cetera—yet they find a way to still be mysterious.
MC: It’s like the veil, right? Like I’ll show you a little ankle. How that plays out practically is that you feel in the clique, you feel invested, and you’re involved. But there’s also more to figure out, more to suss out. And the mystery comes from our natural complexity as people. But I also think the overt coyness and this I could tell you what I’m about, but why would I do that? And why would I do that all at once? which creates tension or this push-pull. I’m very honest and vulnerable and I can be very forthright, but I also want you to be into it. I want you to be interested and open the box. There’s that calculation going on—this balancing between radical candor and the desire to be elusive and hard to grasp, almost like a gas.
KC: In “Internet Boyfriend,” the speaker says, “rob me / steal from me / take all my money / sell all my possessions,” so in some ways, they use capitalism as kink. How does capitalism affect love?
MC: In a lot of modern permutations of how relationships go, especially in New York City, lurking in the background is always this question of do I just want somebody to share rent with? And this kind of thin dom, sugar baby situation. I think it’s just a reality of modern life. We know we don’t like it, but this is the world, this is the system that we’re dealing with.
How do we situate ourselves in a way that makes the most sense to us and the people around us so we come out okay? How do you bridge some of these differences between class and social hierarchies and the kinds of jobs that you’re in and your partner’s in? When it comes to this reliance on somebody’s financial security, is being with this person going to allow me to work on these projects, or does it mean I have to work two or three jobs just to survive? It’s ever-present—this unholy connection between commerce and romance.
KC: You use a lot of food imagery. What about consumption interests you?
MC: I think for a long time, I felt this enormous sense of guilt about using food for imagery because it’s often used in poetry by both the dominant class and the people being dominated to other and exoticize. It took some time to figure out how to use food in a way that doesn’t do that. I landed on using food imagery as an anchor. Many of my references may be obscure or out there depending on the circles you travel in, but everybody, hopefully, knows what meatloaf is or mac and cheese. I use food regardless of “where it’s from” to serve as these lights that can guide you someplace. Obviously, there’s a bias that’s baked into using Western food (you know we just have to say it), but I also talk about Asian food. Readers might not get the obscure movie reference or lyric, but if I’m talking about these food-related memories or images, there is some sense of logic which allows them to feel comfortable and grounded. And then, of course, the next line will disrupt that and make them feel very uneasy and lost.
KC: In “SORRY IN ADVANCE,” you write, “that is how they want me to write / instead i write about timothée chalamet.” What kind of pressure is there on BIPOC writers, queer writers, or writers in general to write a certain way, and how do you resist it?
MC: Regardless of who you are, there is always an impulse of wanting to be accepted or part of the crew. What I was talking about in the poem is that poets of color, queer poets, et cetera, are supposed to write about their immigrant journey or how they were subjected to racism or the unfairness of institutions. These systems are terrible, obviously, but there is a reflexive demand on the part of editors and even casual readers to make poets who identify with these groups talk about their trauma all the time and how they were victims of these oppressive regimes.
We have legitimate claims and complaints of varying degrees of severity. But many poets fall into this trap where they think that to be successful, they need to write about political oppression in their home country when they maybe have never even been to their home country. They fall into this vicious cycle of thinking, Okay, we’re going to churn out the Tiananmen poems, we’re going to do the censorship poems, and then we’re going to do this strand of Uyghur camp poems. It’s important to call attention to these issues, and I’m not minimizing the importance of these issues, but I think that when you play into what they want you to be doing, that doesn’t serve your purposes. By doing that, you’re perpetuating these racist views of your “backward country” in China or wherever.
In terms of my work, because I understand that impulse, I’ve always written against that, kind of like what I was saying about queerness being taken for granted in a positive way. I don’t play up to stereotypes, and I try to do it in a way that’s palatable to “the majority” reading populous. It starts from a conversation more than, for example, telling readers about all these people that died. In politics, you don’t want to repeat your opponent’s critiques of you. I’m going to be honest about my portrayal of China or some of the human rights abuses, but I’m not going to perpetuate stereotypes. I’m not here to play into those racist talking points and propaganda in order to be published. I want the freedom that other people feel that they can write about whatever. I want people to feel that they can write about whatever. Ultimately, that’s the takeaway, regardless of what you identify as, you should feel like you can write about what you want to write about.
KC: I feel like I can share your poems with my writer friends, but I also can share them with my non-writer friends.
MC: I don’t write my poems to be hard to understand. I’m about meeting people where they are, but I’m also about my point of view. If you’re not getting through to people, you should rethink your approach. A lot of poets talk at folks, but I’m very interested in talking with them. Even if you haven’t been to these places or you have no idea how New Yorkers live, you’re interested and curious. I think most people are curious. I think the vast majority of people are willing to have a conversation. That’s the beauty of it; people are willing to talk to you if you approach it the right way. And I spent literally all my time in my professional life and in my personal life thinking about how to approach these sometimes thorny issues in a way that gets the best results. I’m not interested in preaching. My politics are clear. I don’t think anybody is questioning my politics. In terms of the work and how the art is conveyed, I’m very interested in having a conversation and broadening the types of people that read poetry. Poetry is for everyone. I’m not interested in academia necessarily, which is not everybody else’s approach, but that’s my approach. If I wanted to talk to New York City poetry crew who have at least a master’s degree, I could easily do that, but I’m not interested in doing that. I’m more interested in talking to people who casually pick up a poetry book, attend a reading, or see something online.