An Interview with Sylvia Chan


Sylvia Chan is the author of We Remain Traditional, out from the Center for Literary Publishing in February 2018. She lives in Tucson, where she teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Arizona. She serves as nonfiction editor for Entropy, docent for the UA Poetry Center, and court advocate for foster kids in Pima County.


Jon Riccio: The opening poem “Devotion Song” tells us “If the mercury will kill me, I want you to feel accomplished,” followed by a set of musical instructions that address two-part counterpoint and figured bass, the outcome where “a language is / pitched specifically for the immediate situation.” From one instrumentalist to another, how would you describe We Remain Traditional in terms of melody and modulation?

Sylvia Chan: I pride myself on understanding and upholding technical precision and creative license. This is the allure of classical and jazz piano—I came into classical first, so I have a school of thought I’m always reframing, even as I have learned to embrace the improvisatory, the hesitance and misgiving that only a performance where everything can’t be predicted can call for. A once in a lifetime performance. No repetitions. Only visceralities. Learning to accept this is one way to approach We Remain Traditional: my protagonist prides herself on admitting her failures alongside her successes, musical and personal. It is okay to permit intersections, and the duality of two-part counterpoint and figured bass—of a loving and abusive Adam—is a love story. When I think about how many domestic violence perpetrators, victims, and survivors have “love” written into their narratives, I understand I am not alone.


JR: “Two Composers From Canton” involves an “imaginary Charter of the English Language of Canton” as necessitated by the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s ensuing governance. You detail the physicalities of creative types—


all former writers have columnar

necks and delineated upper lips,

vertebrae cracks down the pentatonic





What’s cleft is an introspective

singer knowing how feet feel,


where the money’s gone.


Ternary form and symphonic

poem and his tongue allowing me

to hear the phraseology


of the song beneath it all.


Several poems in the book focus on injury, whose physical state is a charter unto itself. What links do you draw between the corporeal and linguistic?

SC: I stopped performing as a jazz pianist because I lost my hand. I refused to be twenty-two and disabled: there is a beauty to reconstruction that is scary, as in, if I never said a word and pretended like I haven’t gone through hell to learn how to write again—and in a different way: I learned to write with the other hand—only I would know. I could just be the poet who has an ugly hand scar and fingertips that look unreal—because they are. 

A reconstructed hand means it’s real. I remember men and women asking me if they could touch my hand and being surprised when they felt, oh, I have nails, skin, bones. It’s funny, I used to hate how I was fetishized: both in undergrad when I lost my hand, and in grad school, when I still couldn’t hide the fact I’d lost my hand. Now I can’t imagine my life without that loss and re-envisioning of myself. 


JR: I agree with your deduction, “The most pleasing neurosis would be erotic civic hope.” I never thought of those words in the trio sense. Do you see them in equal distribution, as opposed to one taking precedence over the others? Interestingly, this neurosis closes out a poem with “a spook / extremophile dress” (“Mine Is Probably an Owl”). For what occasion is this garment best suited?

SC: Erotic civic hope. In grad school, I was uncomfortable in my skin because I introduced myself as a poet who’d come from California, and when asked about family, I said the truthful things that sounded good on paper: I have two parents who are married, two sisters, and have loved plenty in my lifetime, even at twenty-two, the age of my “closest” self in the book. Luckily, my cohort, Rafael E. Gonzalez and Andrea Francis, and later, my thesis committee Jane Miller and Ander Monson, read my poems and saw this was untrue. I remember Andie telling me, “Who writes about losing their hand if they haven’t? It would take someone unwilling to be happy to lie about that. And I don’t see that in you.”

A spook extremophile dress is for my uncertainties. I find it incredibly difficult to lie; I don’t lie. I just think about my mother lying all the time, even for little things, like I could’ve figured my grandmother didn’t own gold and heart-shaped earrings because she was killed. My mom was the youngest of seven children: she wouldn’t have had an inheritance. However, I understand the safety and defense mechanism in withholding truths, even as I disagree with the method: we do things to protect the ones we love because we believe it is in their best interest—no matter how wrong. When I wear my spook extremophile dress, I am able to own my darkness as someone who has grown out of child abuse, domestic violence, and grief and yet live it. There is no healthy way to ignore who I am because of where I come from, which is why I think I’ve chosen to return to the foster care system as a court advocate—that is still my world. Erotic civic hope.


JR: “It Happened By Accident” contains the pivotal revelation


When the sheet

door takes off

half my hand, he vows


to value my body.


That tercet is perfectly centered, its placement belying the horror of a severance-level wound. Was it a matter of craft-as-anesthetic that allowed you to reflect, ornately, on an event so grounded in pain? How would you teach a workshop on recollection with the goal of writing what trauma remembers?

SC: How I write poems has everything to do with how I read, write, and play music: visually, I break lines following my musicality; I follow my ear. Cool if it turns out to be a smarter and poetic aesthetic move, but there is no poetic lineation behind it other than I trust my musicality and because I am a musician first—and have spent my entire life learning where it strikes my heartstrings—I know where it hurts.

I think it is tough to teach those who would have the least grounds to sympathize with me as a writer, but they are also the hope: I don’t want to speak to inclusive groups which identify themselves as, “Oh, I’ll get it because I have also been pained.” No. There are much more unique ways to get to know someone, and I’d rather provide the space for my readers to explore that than to tell them: trauma writing is rooted in the entirety of one’s truths. That definition is the same as writing the essay, which allows the writer to, well, not lie. Poetry does not do the same thing: we can fabricate. I’d teach prose writers who are poets or have poetic inclinations like Maggie Nelson, Jesmyn Ward, and Justin Chin because they understand that trauma—and living with it—is making visceral their memories; they matter.


JR: We have a poem of repair a few pages on (“Heat Burst”)—

This is how a teleology works:


            to move away from, to reaffirm

            occupation for his fingers—a slender palliative.


            After the reconstruction, my hands were never

            the same, but he treated me as though


            I still played Prince and Radiohead

            to suggest my understanding


            of Satie and his heavy drinking.


I keep thinking of your title, We Remain Traditional, wondering to what extent your work focuses

on nontraditional rebuilding, the abovementioned passage an illustration of the unconventional (I

love “slender palliative”) and how it assists in one’s attempt at regaining ‘normalcy’ by means as self-directed as they are divergent. Is the traditional/nontraditional dichotomy your canvas or your tightrope?

SC: No. Haha. Actually, the title poem is not in the collection—the only semblance of its existence is a broadside printed by the University of Arizona Letterpress Lab in 2014. But I wrote the title of my book into “One Contour in the Narrative Break” after thinking about the silences with Adam as we walked through Lake Merritt, like we wouldn’t speak to each other. Do couples not speak to each other for the circumference of a lake walk? And this was one of our habits. To not speak. Which is a repair, no matter how untraditional.


JR: For every trauma survivor there is a trauma decedent, as depicted in “Prodrome”—


            The body canopies arrive at midday

            after the principal has been quartered


            with a donkey tied to each limb.

            The murderers send boxes, too,


            for the stumped parts: my grand-

            mother won’t receive her entire husband.


            Just his wrist.


What responsibilities do you feel as a reteller of such atrocities? Who are your influences in the arena of intergenerational narrative?

SC: I think about what I’d want my nuclear children and grandchildren to know about where we come from. I mean, they’d have caught on there are no files, documents, artifacts of my grandparents; I don’t even have many of my own from my childhood So I am obsessed with creating my history, piecing it together after my parents’ attempts to erase it.  


JR: “Violence / always has to preface beauty . . . . Praise, praise, praise. Shove me into a think tank” (“Personal Concept”). What are the precursors to intellectual violence?

SC: It is beautiful. You don’t follow someone into a horrific crime if you don’t find it palatable.


JR: The notion of fracture features throughout the collection, reaching its loudest notes in “Unasylumed, Unarchived” which offers fractured paradises, diasporas, and a “syllabic pain” that “fractured cannot solve.” Yet the book is a study in recombination, often sectioned by asterisks and numbers, but a wholeness nonetheless. It achieves a poetic totality through the fragmentary. Was this your vision all along, or is the end result a confluence of your experiences being “knotted in themselves”?

SC: I think in musical durations—of their breaks, of their multiplicities, of their returns. Satie openly mocks his darkness in his liner notes; I am attracted to that ownership. A lot of people call me “level-headed,” as if my professional, writing, and advocacy accomplishments are proof I am the success story. Which is true, to my credit. I just would rather be called “level-headed and sometimes, messed up” because I think about my self-abasement and terror—how I can now talk about it when not long ago, I couldn’t envision a life without being defined by those darknesses. That is the power of “syllabic pain” which remains “knotted in themselves:” it becomes everything. It makes it harder to remember there is more to live for than one’s pain. 


JR: Congratulations on your book, Sylvia. I’m proud to have been in your cohort at the University of Arizona, as well as a fellow caretaker—each in our own way—of the Poetry Center. You give docents a better name than they already have! You also find time to volunteer as an advocate on behalf of young people who face complex realities as wards of the Pima County foster-care system. How has this enriched your writing?

SC: You know, docentry with the UA Poetry Center has been one of my longest relationships since moving to Tucson six years ago. There is something beautiful and unprecedented in getting to know and love a group of people who could be, let’s face it, my grandparents. And that has meant everything to me. I never had the chance to know mine. We are bound by our love for poetry and for wanting to advocate and immerse ourselves in education, literacy, outreach. And we do stuff like check up on each other as humans who look beyond doing things because it looks good—we do it for our family.  

I don’t think I am far along in my court advocacy to where it has affected my poetry in the ways my nonfiction has been forthcoming and unafraid to speak. I am tired of being quiet. And I’m really good at fighting for others, sometimes at the cost of hurting myself, which is something I’ve always known. In foster care, we call it compassion fatigue. A writer who would take someone’s pain and wear it is someone I am still proud to be.

My second book-in-progress is on foster care, if we want to build upon one experience in We Remain Traditional. To threaten someone with foster care—I couldn’t believe that was vocalized to me. To remember that at the end of the day, my parents loved me, but not enough to get their shit together. That is not love, traditional or untraditional.

Thank you, Jon, for your inquisitive and caring questions. I am over the moon to have talked about my book with you, someone who has followed it when it was a body-in-progress, and now, as it exists in my hands, a body that has upheld my voice. I hope to sustain the strength I’ve somehow managed to demonstrate in that tricky journey that is coming into my own.


Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where he serves as an associate editor at Mississippi Review. His work appears in Booth, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review, Permafrost, and Waxwing, among others. He held a Poetry Center digital projects internship during his MFA.