Special Focus on Justin Chin - The Writings

From the archives (June 29, July 6, July 13, July 20, 2016):

Singapore Poetry’s “Special Focus” series highlights an important aspect of the work of an established Singapore author. By making available a substantial selection of work, SP hopes to encourage both readerly and critical engagement with the author. We begin to see connections, reiterations, and reformulations that are missed in reading just one work. The inaugural series looked at the extraordinary gardening poems of Leong Liew Geok. This second series brings you the searing brand of truth-telling in the writings of Justin Chin.

Poet, fictionist, essayist, and performance artist, Justin Chin told the truth as he saw it in its defiant and risky–human, in short–contradictions. Born in Kuantan, Malaysia, in 1969, he was sent to Singapore for schooling, as many Chinese Malaysians were, and still are, to obtain a more “useful” English-language education. Having little interest in school, he did poorly at a national examination, went to the University of Hawai’i to study journalism, before landing in San Francisco, where he made his mark as a writer. He soon gained a reputation for writing about subjects that other authors shied away from. Four books of poetry and fiction were published by the San Francisco indie outfit Manic D Press, a collection of essays Mongrel by St. Martin’s Press, and a second volume of essays Burden of Ashes by Alyson Books. His poetry won the Thom Gunn Award and was named a Finalist by Lambda Literary. Chin died of a stroke last year, in December 2015, at the age of 46.

A major statement of why he wrote can be found in his autobiographical essay “Hid and Found” (Burden of Ashes, Alyson Books, 2001):

Growing up in an atmosphere of censorship and repression, where one generation who learns to keep silent and play safe passes those fears on to the next generation and the next, takes its toll; it does what it’s supposed to do. Writing is an ongoing risk. And it is a risk that I take on, maybe because I know no better way to make sense of this mud of life. Every day I have to fight my feelings that what I do is trivial, frivolous, and meaningless. And in the end, in the dustbin of my history, when all is decaying and rooted, composting to bits, whether my work survives after me, or even survives the next few years, will remain to be seen. What I know is what this work did. It gave me the courage to speak, and to find some semblance of myself worth the words. And that act has in no small way loosened the straps on that old muzzle made in the government store and sent to every home and every parent who willingly, or perhaps not so willingly, put it on themselves and their children, and their children after that.

Much beloved in San Francisco, Chin’s friends and fans remembered him in a special tribute, organized by Radar Productions, held in January 2016 at the San Francisco Public Library. This July, a memorial reading of his works will be held in Singapore on Saturday, July 23. For details, please email jeeleong.koh@gmail.com.

SP is pleased to present the first part of our “Special Focus on Justin Chin. ” “Buffed Fag” is a hybrid work collected in his first book of poems Bite Hard (Manic D Press, 1997). Read it aloud to feel its full-on effect. The series continues every Wednesday.

Buffed Fag
by Justin Chin

I want to be a buffed fag.

When I walk down the street I want folks to do a double take, gawk in disbelief, mouths agape, and say, “Oh my god! That faggot is so buffed!”

I’ll spend six hours in the gym every day, blasting my quads, doing leg lifts, squats and presses and curls so I will be The Buffed Fag Of Your Dreams. I will pose and flex my muscles while having sex because that’s what turns the boys on. I will have them worship my muscles and tell me how good I look as they chow down on my glutes. I’ll bench press until I look like the Tazmanian Devil of Bugs Bunny cartoons, as I walk down the street in all my big chest skinny waist top heavy neanderthal arm drag swagger, thinking I’m the hottest shit in the universe and I am…

Because I am a Buffed Fag (at least I want to be). I will have sex with the towel boy at Muscle Systems, the guy who makes the protein shakes at Gold’s, and the trainer at Market Street Gym; and I too will be able to pull off the bad fag attitude thing, previously reserved solely for store clerks at Tower Records and Video.

Oh, I do so want to be a Buffed Fag, hanging out in the locker rooms of gyms to pick up other buffed fags and to score injectable steroids, remembering to wash my needles with bleach and never sharing them, because I don’t want to be a diseased fag, just as buffed fag with a dick shrunken to the size of a Vick’s inhaler; but I won’t care, because I am a buffed fag.

I will scan the L.L. Bean, J. Crew, and International Male catalogs and pick who I will marry; last week it was the one-piece perforated lycra jumpsuit, this week it’s the low cut eazy-breathe fundoshi, next week it’s the tan-thru bikini underwear, and folks will believe me as I partake of my fantasies because I’m a buffed fag and I have the god-given right to sail through the world being just like everybody else, to have the whole puny world owe me a living because everybody loves a Buffed Fag (even though they’re assholes), and everybody listens to a buffed fag (even though they have the IQ and personality of a box of cat hair).

You know you too want to be a buffed fag, you can’t help it as you watch them waddle down the street sure that folks would move out of their way, downing their protein shakes, spirulina shakes, shaking their way down into the psyche of Ooo-Ooo-Baby-Hot-Baby, boogieing on down to our little techno-trance dance clubs breeding ground display cases for buffed fag bodies. So c’mon, what’s stopping you? Decency? Pride? (Forget it.) A sense of self-worth? (Ha.) Intelligence? A semblance of life? (Forget that.) Let’s all be Buffed Fags and the whole damn scrawny world will belong to us.

“Buffed Fag” from Bite Hard (Manic D Press: San Francisco) © 1997 by Justin Chin. Used with permission of publisher.


This is the second part of our “Special Focus” on Justin Chin.

by Justin Chin

Four men carry one,
each holding a limb,
wife trailing crying:
bit by a scorpion;

the evil culprit,
black in a jam jar,
rattles against glass.

Poison in the blood,
no feeling in arms and legs.

On the surgical table,
my father strategically
inserts seven fine
needles, newly acquired
acupuncture skills from Taiwan.

Soon, the man walks shakily,
slight limp out of the clinic.

Maybe there was more,
I’m sure there was more
to it than that,
but an eight-year-old boy
in pajamas and slippers
killing time
in his parents’ workplace,

discovers that

      (and it marks him
      for the rest of his life)

there is a cure
for poison in the blood

put there by scorpions,
snakes, spiders, centipedes
and demons.

      And for a while,
the fatal, cancerous
world that spins
towards hell and destruction
slows its revolution,

and there is more
      day and more night.

“Poison” from Harmless Medicine (Manic D Press: San Francisco) © 2001 by Justin Chin. Used with permission of publisher.


Part Three of our special focus on Justin Chin brings you his short story “Quietus” collected in his book 98 Wounds (San Francisco: Manic D Press).

by Justin Chin

“How would you like to die?” he asks.

“How anyone would,” I say. “In my sleep, in my own bed.” I could turn the question around back to him but the answer was, if not obvious, then at least suspended in our air. So I say instead, “How would you not like to die? What’s the worst death?”

“Anything involving lava, or quicksand,” he says.

“Is there still quicksand? Didn’t the U.N. and the World Health Organization eradicate that in the late 60s?”

“No, they gave up after polio and smallpox,” he says. “Your worst death?”

“Animals,” I say. “Being eaten by some wild hungry animal. What would be really awful is if the animal had a small jaw, and so it has to take lots of little bites to finish you off.”

“On the flip side of that, can you imagine being mauled by panda bears?” he says. “Wouldn’t that be the cutest death ever?”

“Or else,” I offer, “a headline in the newspapers might read: Autopsy reveals that man killed by three-toed sloth actually died of late stage cancer.”

A week ago, we watched a TV movie on cable called Strays. A family—father, mother, young child, and newly born infant—moves into their dream home out in the woodsy suburbs. And then the nightmare begins. They are stalked by a colony of feral cats. The alpha male cat, the principal evil who’s supposedly afraid of water (obviously), looked like he had been dipped in a bucket of K-Y jelly and barely towel dried. The tag line for the movie was Cats have nine lives, you only have one. There was a lot of clawing and scratching and more clawing until their victims inexplicably died. And not to mention with inflamed sinuses, too. I believe one victim even threw himself off the third floor balcony to his death just so the awful mewing and clawing would stop.

It is a cliché in horror movies when, during a suspenseful moment, a cat would suddenly fly, or rather be flung, screeching and meowing across the screen. In this movie, however, that tired ruse made perfect sense and it happened quite frequently as well.

“What’s the collective noun for cats?” he asks.

“A bunch of cats? A furby of cats? A plié of cats? An allergy of cats?” I say guessing, but he’s already dozed off. Then, now, it’s darkening in gradual sheets outside and in here, and he’s getting tired. When I leave, I will go to his apartment and attempt to tidy up, put things away, pack things up. What more can I do? Twelve days ago he left for his medical specialist’s appointment and never came back, sent straight to hospice care, and his apartment is evidence of that. Everything—every object and piece of furniture, every wall hanging and scrap of paper, every appliance and implement, every book and record, every withering houseplant and all the pillows on the bed, even the air aswirl with particles of dust and dander—hangs as if in mid-sentence. It’s a kind of heartbreak I never knew I could or would ever recognize.

It is mid-day, an ordinary unsurprising type of mild any day, when I get an text message from him which reads This is kind of it, kiddies. I’m feeling one fry short of the Happiest Meal. I feel like I’m underwater more and more each hour. Thank you for everything. You are all precious to me.

A whole lot of cats is a clowder, a clutter, a cluster, a colony, a glorying, a pounce, a kindle, a litter, a dout, a parliament, a seraglio, a glaring, a destruction.

“Quietus” from 98 Wounds (Manic D Press: San Francisco) © 1997 by Justin Chin. Used with permission of publisher.


Part Four of our Special Focus on Justin Chin reprints a poem from his last book of poems Gutted, which was named a Finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. The title poem is a multivalent, multi-form sequence of 65 parts. “Incontinence” is Section xxiv. It brings to life the love shared between father and son, even as the father loses his grasp on life.

Gutted xxiv. Incontinence
by Justin Chin

Looking back on that late morning, when it was just
the two of us in the house, perhaps watching
that meandering and indulgent documentary
on waterslide parks in the Middle East,
                              oil creating such magnificently
                              excessive unnatural bodies of water
                              in the middle of a blistering desert,
was clearly not the best idea.

Even as we sat there, even before
I heard the faint drip to the floor,
the runoff trickled around the crevices,
the cracks of the sofa, I knew
something was afoot.

I knew what the medications did to the bladder.
I also knew shame, and embarrassment,
and face.

                              “natural given the treatment”
                              “no problem cleaning it up”
                              “nothing to be ashamed of”
                              “never mind, it’s okay”

Self-consciousness cloaks itself
with cliches, a fashion victim,
wearing layers upon layers thick
of ill-matched garments,
inappropriate for the present weather.

I know.
There are days, low days
when the meds abrade against my appetites,
and accidents will happen, in spite
of best efforts.

And any dignity that you can hand back
to someone who has just crapped his pants in public
is not a dignity of a kind that anyone can use,
or should want. You’re getting the placebo
in a medical trial for tainted medicine.

I know
to keep watching
the mile-long waterslide that even
lets you slide upwards by virtue of powerful jets
strategically placed.

Now, he’s in the bathroom, quietly changing into fresh clothes.

Now, he’s in the back kitchen
trying to put the soiled clothes
into the washing machine or a wash pail of water,
but the machine is running, there are no available pails.

Now, he’s found the air freshener under the sink; later
he will go to his room to nap, and I will leg in
on my hands and knees and clean up so that not
a smudge will be known when the others get home.

Now, he’s back in the bathroom,
bundling his soiled clothes in a sheaf
of old newspapers and cramming that
into a plastic grocery bag.

And I just again want to be the one
who fell asleep in the stands with his head
in his dad’s lap at the home team’s first game
on home ground to a capacity crowd;

              close my eyes and lay my head down
              in the swell of boisterous noise and all
              hullabaloo, open them
              in the still quiet of my room,
              tucked into bed.

“Incontinence” from Gutted (Manic D Press: San Francisco) © 2006 by Justin Chin. Used with permission of publisher.