Poet in the Mirror: Jane Wong
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Jane Wong— author of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (available now from Alice James Books)— shares insight into writing about family, immigration, and legacy.
On Personal History
This is a book that’s deeply focused on intergenerational relationships and trauma. The poems move through time and the speaker converses, or tries to converse, with her family members and ancestors. What advice would you give to emerging poets who might want to tackle their own personal history?
This is a beautiful question– and something that I’m still figuring out! To begin, I thought it was important to give myself that permission– to speak to my ancestors, to reach them across so much space and time. In writing this book, there was a lot of deep listening. I made altars, I made meals. It was really important for me to avoid the idea of having “interviews” with my family. Trauma is so painful to bring up and I didn’t want to open that chasm. Instead, I listened often to what they didn’t say. I’d listen to my mother and grandmother speak adoringly about sweet potatoes– knowing that there wasn’t meat to eat. I’d eat sweet potatoes with them, often stirred in rice soup, holding them close. In other words: in tackling difficult personal history, be tender. To your loved ones and to yourself.
On Putting the Book Together
Can you talk about the process of ordering this book? Of course, it’s framed by the Great Leap Forward, or the Great Famine, of China. Food weaves in and out of almost every poem. But there are also moments of joy and dreams and the water of Puget Sound. How did you go about organizing them together?
Food, yes! I definitely wanted nourishment to course throughout the entire book. I kept thinking about the poems to my family during the Great Leap Forward as the beating heart of the book– with the ventricles of anger, of heartbreak, of toxic masculinity, of ferocious joy, etc. all around it. I wanted to open the book with rage (the book begins with “Mad”). I was certain of that. There is so much to be angry about– such as the fact that the Great Leap Forward never had to happen; this massive starvation could have been stopped. There’s a lot of rage too in the myth of the American Dream. Rage, too, transformed, can be joyful and healing. I keep thinking about journeys when ordering the book. That journeys — like migration — are nonlinear. I hope the book feels nonlinear. Today, I am staring out at the Puget Sound where I live on unceded Lummi and Nooksack land. I am also, somehow, also staring at my family’s village in Toishan. I want to hold all things at once. And maybe the order echoes that!
On Poetics and Craft
I am struck by the repeated phrase of “good daughter” throughout these poems. The insistence of it, the speaker convincing herself. Do you think there are some poetics of daughterhood at play within this collection? If so, what kinds of poetics or craft were you drawn to while writing How to Not Be Afraid of Everything?
Wow, love this question about a poetics of daughterhood! Yes! My third book of poems (which I’m working on now) actually dreams up a future daughter, so this throughline definitely makes a lot of sense to me. I am a bit obsessed with matrilineal lineage. There are quite a few poems in my first and second book that are in the voice/persona of my mother. I am always daughtering. I am still figuring out what that means– and maybe it is that deep listening from earlier. That, to “be a good daughter,” especially in a Chinese family, might mean to listen to those underechoes, that haunting humming, to pass it down to the next generation. I finished my dissertation on the poetics of haunting right when I started writing this book, so I definitely think there’s a lot of haunting at hand here! The craft of ghosts? Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, most formatively.
You have such a gift for similes. I found myself repeatedly surprised by the comparisons drawn, but in the most pleasant way. As if there could be no other comparison. (Two of my favorites are “a cleaver as wide / as a flooded river” and “hair loosening from your crown like a rotted tooth.”)
What was the most surprising thing—either a joyful or challenging one— about writing this collection?
Thank you so much! I adore similes and metaphors and synesthesia and all the descriptive elements/textures. What surprised me most was definitely my last poem, entitled “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly.” This poem, written in the voice of my ancestors who did not survive the Great Leap Forward, came out in a two hour rush. The poems in “When You Died” are all epistolaries– written to them, and I was eager for them to speak to me, but they wouldn’t. I had been thinking about writing that last poem where they speak to me for years. Maybe I was afraid of what they’d say? Then, after two years, I was grading in a coffee shop, and I had to literally stop and write this poem. And I did so in two hours, pretty much as is. I was stunned. They demanded a feast, a party. They were voracious and hilarious and gluttonous and gleaming and full of love. What a surprise. This has never happened to me before, for sure!
On Difficulties and Energy
I also need to say how much this book resonated with me as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant. (Thank you for writing this book!) The lingering of traumatic history, the politics of food, and the quiet resilience felt so intimate to me, and were treated with such care. I can imagine it was also difficult to hold all of that with tenderness.
In writing these poems, what did you do to re-energize yourself?
Oh gosh, thank you Saba for saying that– and I keep thinking, sometimes as a poet, it feels lonely, but then I think again, here we are in community together! Thank you. And that lingering and intimacy, yes. Honestly, I’m looking at this book now and realizing over and over how vulnerable it is. Re-energizing myself in writing this book (and sharing it) is most definitely all about community. I ate with friends and family a lot. That nourishment was a kind of reassurance to my ancestors. I took long baths. I imagined myself as a soup. A really nice, slow-simmering broth.
On What’s Still Lingering
Is there a question about How Not to Be Afraid of Everything you’ve been dying to answer, but no one’s asked it yet?
Hmm! Maybe a question about the biodiversity/ecology of the book! I’ve always wondered (and maybe I should do this, ha!) how many animals and plants appear in this book and in what ways… the sea cucumber and its guts, etc.!
Jane Wong‘s poems can be found in Best American Poetry 2015, POETRY, American Poetry Review, Third Coast, AGNI, and others. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Fine Arts Work Center, Hedgebrook, Artist Trust, and Bread Loaf. She is the author of Overpour (Action Books, 2016) and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.
Saba Keramati is a Chinese-Iranian writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. A graduate of University of Michigan and UC Davis, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appears or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Vagabond City Lit, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @sabzi_k.