Michelle Chan Brown

Introduction to Debt Folio

Moving, in July: return what’s borrowed, assess what’s owned, and determine the precise measurements of the van that can, cost-effectively, contain the detritus of my life. Our life. My husband and I, newlyweds, now a unit, move back to the city and pale brick house of my childhood. As we pass Connecticut bucolia and the primary-color sprawl of the DC suburbs, I pop pretzel M&Ms, re-read The Odyssey, and cry during the closing scene – as much for our hero as for Penelope, who has spent Book after Book in various poses of inertia, calculating without action, taking stock.

We settle. We drive to our Washington jobs, a little NPR on the hi-fi. Universities slash their humanities-department budgets, and lucid, probing essays are written on the inherent pragmatism/holiness/necessity/frivolity of lucid, probing literature. Those poor countries on the verge of financial crisis. But not us! It’s still good to be us!

I remember my interest in Cyprus as anthropological, that huh commingling with horror, much like hearing about acts of cannibalism in Jamestown – unsettling, but distant. Like fiction.

The question of reading: the space between reader and text. Is it safe? Should it be? Much has been made about the connection between consuming text and cultivating empathy; we can Be Other People and See How The Others Really Live without actually having to, you know, be them. We can be miserly about our time as audience without displaying an ignorance of social mores. Don’t like the direction of this conversation? Simply close the cover or power down.

While I want to embrace the reader-as-more-enlightened-and-lovingkindness-than-your-average-narcissist idea, it strikes me as both logically incomplete and somewhat disingenuous. After all, the text, through virtuosity and linguistic fireworks or beauty or pure entertainment, can command the reader into feeling something, into fixation, into hypnosis, or into simply listening, which is a lot. And yet, no matter how much control the writer can exert on his audience, no matter how many “assumptions” about the “human experience” can be challenged during the union of reader and writer, the reader ultimately controls the duration of his captivity. I shut the book. I shut you up.

And aren’t compassion and empathy forms of letting go, ceding of control – after all, what is more valuable currency than time? When we fall in love, they say, time stops, because our desire makes the “work” of über-empathy seem like the most natural thing in the world, and the most efficient route to pleasure.

But my subject here is debt, not pleasure.

Perhaps Odysseus’ heroism stems not from his cunning or strategery, but his sense of indebtedness. His wife and son, his oft-faithless crew, his fallen men: these debts accumulate into a slow morass of obligation, more molasses than lightning. The small non-epiphanies that make the man. Perhaps that is why his journey remains with us, and Odysseus eminently “relatable” because he is driven not by a godlike ambition or talent, but by the accumulation of so-called ordinary debts that shape experience.

My husband and I carry our boxes across the threshold of my mother’s house. It is ours, and not-ours. I love the gold of the floorboards, the Thai basil and dill my mother has planted beyond the flat stones of the yard; I feel indebted to her for gifting me these domestic objects. On the one hand, they are gems that I have convinced myself I do not have the patience, skill and tenderness to maintain. On the other, they are the trappings, they are roots, they bind. One day, when we are truly grown, if we are careful and lucky, we will buy into a place of our own, and accumulate the real debt that is testament to adulthood.

When Drunken Boat placed the call for poems that examine “the friction between desire and limits, the intersection of ownership and obligation,” I could not anticipate that I would, months after the call, commute through a ghost-town Pennsylvania Avenue, and be self-consciously typing “John Boehner understanding the default” into my browser. As this particular narrative transitions from pathos to bathos and back, however, the process of reading the extraordinary submissions for this folio have clarified one of my suspicions about debt, at least with regard to poetry. Writing and reading are joyous enactments of debt: reader and writer are, like new lovers, perpetually locked into a cycle of captivity and yearning, and it is the very refusal of settlement that reinforces process as pleasure. Reader needs writer needs…the owing, and the refusal of ownership, will not cease. Nor should it.

Rather than present a catalogue of teaser lines from the exceptional poets in this folio, I invite you to enter the process of mutual submission from some of the most exciting voices in poetry: Cynthia Cruz, Sandra Lim, Wesley Rothman, Matthew Lippman, Anna Marie Hong and Kara Candito, to name just a few. The range of subject and formal approach is testament to how profoundly debt threads through our sense of our selves in the world, even before the Federal farrago. I feel privileged to have been reader of these poems, and of the many excellent submissions that could not be included. And, ultimately, I can’t resist ending with Sandra Lim, from “Vous Et Nul Autre”:

Before he goes and she helps
herself with plans, prior to the seamed
self saying, let them, let them wreck in me—

They are so sorry for each other’s anger.
Nevertheless, they rummage inside
themselves for their tiny knives of feeling


and all they want now is relief,
not from feeling but from the anticipation
of an answer, for all the formal difference in between. 


Michelle Chan Brown
Poetry Editor
October, 2013 


Michelle Chan Brown

Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent was the winner of the 2012 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Linebreak, The Missouri Review, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Witness and others.

Michelle received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was a Rackham Fellow. A Kundiman fellow, Michelle has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center and the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. Her chapbook, The Clever Decoys, is available from LATR Editions. She lives with her husband, the musician Paul Erik Lipp, in Washington DC, where she teaches, writes, and edits Drunken Boat and co-curates the Cafe Muse series. Find her online at www.michellechanbrown.com.