Erin Jin Mei O'Malley is a queer Asian American writer. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Redivider, wildness, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, and others. They have received a scholarship from the Lambda Literary Foundation and nominations for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.
Your poem ’SELF-PORTRAIT AS THE DEAD FISH IN SOME GUY’S TINDER PROFILE PICTURE’ recently placed first in Sine Theta’s summer writing contest, which, incidentally, has to be one of the most iconic poem titles ever. That piece seems to be constantly jostling against the institution of grammar, its violence but also its fundamental slipperiness. It reminds me of my favourite lines from ‘Fourth Degree Burn, Third Degree Arson’: ‘there are four types of arson / and just two kinds of people: / those who burn / and those who burn’, and from ‘I Love the Way Men Love’: ‘Once, I walked in on my uncle / walking out on his marriage.’ What strikes me in all three cases is this linguistic playfulness at the most fraught of moments. How does your style fit in with and interact with your intentions as a writer, and how has it come about?
Haha thank you. I think I've always admired wordplay having come to it first through showtunes and bad puns. Right now, my wilder poem titles come from an interest in clickbait, specifically in how the mundane is made comic or bizarre in order to draw one's attention. I think that there can also be this idea that poetry is some high, untouchable art, and I wholly disagree with that. Lately when I've been writing poems, I've been thinking about the possibilities of language. How can I bend a word in half or double it? How can I shift the meaning of a word or bring about what only I know a word to mean? Part of why I am first and foremost a poet is because of the alchemical nature of poetry: all the potential for change.
You’ve written about Mitski and dedicated work to her before - what does her music hold for you?
Mitski is my mom. (jk). When I play Mitski's music, I feel understood. I don't know how else to describe other than that when I hear her songs, I can listen and be heard at the same time. There's a song by Mitski that I used to not be able to listen to at all. If I heard even the first few chords, my whole body would ache.
Now, when I hear it, it doesn't hurt me anymore. Another reason why I love Mitski's music so much is because I have grieved and grown while listening to it. Also, big s/o to my mentor/friend Christina Im for getting me into Mitski!
You write both poetry and fiction - what brought you to each of them? What pulls you to choose one or the other medium when you write?
I often think about why I'm so drawn to poetry, and I think this is mostly why: poetry is genreless. Because it's a genre defined by a quality other than its capacity for objective truth, it opens itself up to emotional truth. Even though most poetry is assumed to be autobiographical (and my own work is in many ways), I like that poetry doesn't carry the full burden of fact. I haven't written any fiction in a while, but reading How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (which I would highly, highly recommend) has made me want to get back into writing stories. With fiction, I'm most interested in speculative work. I think there's actually very little difference between the real and the speculative.
I’m interested in the poetics of place in your work - there are cornfields, cities, Kansas (or Kansan-ness), Appalachia, Texas, the Yangtze River. Are these invocations of specific geographies deliberate or a more unconscious seepage? How does place influence your writing and writerly identity?
I grew up in semi-rural Pennsylvania (think the Amish), have lived next to a field in Germany, and my family now lives in Pennsylvanian Appalachia. I have always lived in or on the edge of rural landscapes. While I was home visiting my grandmother this past summer, I wanted to see how long I could walk without
reaching anything, so I walked for ten miles before and gave up and came home. I think places like this have made me acutely aware of being Asian American. I'm adopted. I don't write many poems that are explicitly set in China, but when I do, they are my own imaginings of the histories I've inherited.
I also wanted to ask you about the theme of kinship in your writing, especially its intersection with wider political factors like China’s one child policy. Where does this writerly focus on familial ties come from?
I have many families, which is in part due to the fracturing of my biological family. I was raised in a predominantly white area in a white family. For much of my life, I have never belonged, but now for every place where I have been alone, I have met someone who I love so much that they can only be called family.
Which media (poems, books, songs, plays, etc) have been most influential in your development as a writer and a person?
So many but here's what comes immediately to mind: Mitski's entire discography, Pure Heroine by Lorde, channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean, Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon, Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day, The Crown Ain't Worth Much by Hanif Abdurraquib, How To Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of The Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
Who are your literary parents? What does the rest of the family tree look like?
Natalie Wee and Nancy Huang have both been incredibly kind to me. Margaret Zhang is truly my brother. I owe so much to Chen Chen, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and so many other queer Asian poets. K Min Chang is my lesbian icon. I've learned so much from my fellow members of The Excleano Project, the University of Pennsylvania's spoken word poetry collective. These are only a handful of people in my family tree.
Your work sometimes deals with political conflict - I’m thinking particularly here of ‘Elegy’ and ‘The Yangtze River’. What role do you think literature plays, or perhaps, should play, in terms of political and ethical engagement?
I'm thinking specifically of Alexander Chee's essay On Becoming an American Writer when I say this, but I think writing has the power to teach us how to become better people in a very non-didactic way. Through reading the work of writers whose lives both mirror and are vastly different from my own, I've been able to envision and learn from communities that I otherwise never could have imagined.
Alongside writing, you also have experience in mentoring writers and reading for journals. What has your experience on the other side of the submissions process taught you? What function do you think these practices (editing journals, mentorship, workshops) should serve in the wider literary community?
Teaching and mentoring is so important to me because although writing is, at its core, a rather solitary practice, the workshopping process is one that is communal. The teachers and mentors I've had have not only helped me become a better writer but also a better observer. Working as a reader and editor for
publications has made me more conscious of the power people in these roles (including myself) have to gate-keep within the literary community. I think workshops and publications should always strive to publish writing that is necessary, support their contributors, and encourage emerging writers.
As someone with a remarkable number of publications and prizes, do you ever feel the pressure to keep producing and submitting work, and if so, how do you deal with this (rather capitalist) demand?
I wouldn't say that I started publishing too early, but the majority of my work that's published isn't very representative of how I write now or what I'm interested in writing about. In the past year, the poetry I write has changed so much, reflecting my true interests rather than what I sometimes thought I should have been writing about. The main thing that keeps me submitting is the desire to publish work that is indicative of who I am, at least during the time of writing such pieces. I know I will change and my writing will change, and I think I'll always want to have the work that feels the most like my most current voice to be read.
Any spicy literary opinions?
Genre, like gender, is fake. I talk about being drawn to poetry, but really I think its the ability to work with language in inventive ways that I'm most drawn to, and I think this can and is often done in other genres as well.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
A ton of drafts, but an ode to moshing and a poem about being diagnosed with scoliosis/coming out, in particular.
You can find Erin at @erino232 on Twitter and watch their recent work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQUggbi_X5k&t=4s on Youtube.