Poet in the Mirror: Shelley 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 month, Shelley Wong— author of As She Appears (available now from YesYes Books)— shares insight into writing about queer Asian American identity, spending time with a manuscript, and writing toward joy.
On Submissions and Rejections
Congratulations on your beautiful debut collection! For our readers who are looking to publish, do you mind sharing: What was As She Appears’ relationship to rejection? How long and what did it take to find a home?
Thank you! It was a long journey that became more deliberate. Over six years, I submitted the manuscript to 22 presses, sometimes repeatedly, for a total of 33 submissions. This ended up being 3-8 presses per year. I advise poets with a manuscript to look at their bookshelves to see what presses they are already supporting and vibing with. What is most important to you when it comes to a press? Who do you want to be your author press family? I wanted to be with a press that supported queer writers of color (plural!). What do you want your book to look like? Does the press have publicity/marketing staff? How’s their website and social media? If they are open to it, talk to poets about their press experiences.
If you are a semi-finalist or finalist, submit again! I was a semi-finalist and a finalist for a prior round of the Pamet River Prize and the open reading submission at YesYes Books. I also sent out my manuscript too early, starting in 2014, in my last year of graduate school. Some folks do have a book-ready manuscript at that stage, but mine wasn’t fully formed yet. It didn’t feel finished until 2019 after I wrote a series of poems at a residency at Fire Island National Seashore. I was meditating on the landscape as a site for and not for me as a queer Asian American woman who had visited several years before with my then-partner when we lived in New York City.
I saw so much of myself in this book as a Chinese woman, a Californian, and lover of Frida Kahlo. There is a moment where the speaker of this collection says: “Come out, come out, / my queens of color.” As a collection that navigates queerness, womanhood, race, post-breakup life (just to name a few themes), who did you want to reach while writing this collection?
I’m so happy that the book resonated with you with so many intersections! The dream!
I was writing the poems I wanted to have as a young queer woman of color, and as an adult woman healing from a relationship through self-love and sisterhood rather than turning to a new partner.
There are so many ways women, femmes, queer people, Asian Americans, and introverts—the quiet ones—are minimized and distorted. I wanted to write about being and becoming, our vulnerability and our joy. I wrote these poems as a searching and an affirmation, in the hopes that it would help reach these communities and offer them space for recognition and clarity. There can also be privacy in a queer woman of color’s writing. Silence can be awe, wonder, without fear.
I didn’t write the poems for other poets—I was thinking of how I wanted the poems to be understood by high school students, older queer folks, a broad expanse. I am an older debut poet at 41 and my undergraduate education was sometimes alienating to me because of how literature and creative writing was taught. It didn’t seem accessible to me, it was like an insider’s language. So I am always writing to reach someone and it’s beautiful to me that the book is appearing in the hands of other quiet sisters.
And this includes people like you, who relate to several themes and threads of the book — women —esp queer women, women of color, shy sisters — are not any one thing! Love of art, landscape, music, sisters, fashion — I put it all in there, so I hope these poems reach other people who share the same creative, exploratory vibes. It’s a very California book.
On Referencing Artwork
One of my favorite poems in As She Appears is “All Beyoncés and Lucy Lius,” whose title comes from the Outkast Song “Hey Ya!” The poem is chock full of popular culture references to Asian American identity. Throughout the collection, there are other references to queer artists like Tegan and Sara, and many poems that take place in reaction to art galleries or pieces. How did you choose which references to include, and who to invoke?
When I read the final draft, I realized how the book touches on all decades of my life. As a way of emerging out of a break-up and back into abundance and the body, I wrote towards love. “All Beyoncés and Lucy Lius” is the ecstatic high point in the collection where I was filling it up with Asian and Asian American and Californian references—it went through several versions and I eventually distilled it down to 80s and 90s AsianAm references to focus on coming-of-age in that time (so Linsanity and BTS didn’t make the cut).
Having the “All Beyoncés and Lucy Lius” was a celebration, response, and counterbalance, along with “Private Collection,” which explores the tension between loving art, feeling lonely in art spaces, and writing my way into the artistic space, building self-belief and self-love.
As for the other references, most of them came up in revising poems or associatively thinking of a reference — naturally one thinks of Frank O’Hara on Fire Island, where he died, and seeing a rainbow there reminded me of Elizabeth’s Bishop’s famous line from “The Fish.” As gay and lesbian poets, they were both important to my poetry education, but also spoke to how white that education has been and how I need to build my own queer people of color canon.
Other artists came up in meditating on moments — Pride reminded me of seeing Tegan & Sara every year. I was haunted by “there is something I need to tell you,” a line from Jacques Rancourt’s poem “No Miracle, No Act of God” from his first book Novena about a son coming out to his father.
As a graduate school poet writing my way into becoming a poet poet, I took an incredible playwriting class and became fascinated with immersive theater, popularized by Sleep No More. In these productions, the audience is separated and reunited, guided or free to explore the theater space of rooms, silent or speaking to the actors in their roles. It inspired me to write into that collapsed blurring of audience/viewer/participant as well as persona poetry, breaking the frame and point of view in poems like “White Rabbit” (based on the Then She Fell immersive theater production); “Women After Midnight” (based on the film supercut The Clock by Christian Marclay); and “Invitation with Three Colors” (based on the performance piece Rest Energy with Marina Abramović and Ulay).
On Ordering the Manuscript
The speaker in this collection is beautifully observant. And with that, comes to an understanding of how she is observed. Can you talk through how you ordered this collection, through sections and a coda, to gain a full understanding of the speaker, one who is both known and loved by the reader?
The title can be read several ways. I wanted to turn the conversation about the various ways women can be perceived, misinterpreted, and unseen to give those women a presence and voice. Instead of critiquing a woman as not being “as innocent as she appears” or “as strong as she appears,” women appear in the poems and break the silence as they appear. This turns it into a phrase of being as they are, holding them in their complexities and privacy.
Along the way of writing this book, I discovered Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, which approaches the Annunciation using various modes and forms, and Solmaz Sharif’s Look and Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus. I appreciated how all three of these books used various approaches and moving parts in their collections in the consideration of looking, been seen, and imagining. Their craft fascinated me, as they used different calibrations of the lens, distances, and wonder — like Diana Vreeland said — “the eye needs to travel.”
It was tricky to order the book, as the poems were written over a decade. Using the seasonal forecast poems as a dividing marker made sense, but not all of the poems in each section refer to or were written in that season. Fall and spring poems are for times of transit and winter and summer are for hibernation and reflection. As an overall arc, I began in the more intimate, art-based, reflective world threading in memories of the relationship and then expanded into the world, collective gathering, and what I like to joke as the “awkward dating/spring fever” section — ending with the “Pandemic Spring” coda.
This last piece is a prose piece written in spring 2020 on feeling hypervisible as an Asian woman. In the last line, I was thinking about being known and loved as an act of being and resistance and for the speaker to choose intimacy, with all of its risks, to move towards connection.
Throughout the book, there is ambivalence in appearing — I am moving with joy, but also with boundaries, of what I want to share and where I draw the line for my own privacy and the speaker’s privacy. Of wanting to declare to be understood and at other times choosing not to explain because it is not my job to educate people who don’t have my identities or experiences.
On Abundance and Community
Is there a question about As She Appears you’ve been dying to answer, but no one’s asked it yet?
It’s early in the promotional timeline, but I would like to talk about being fourth-generation Chinese American, which is a very rare thing. Growing up, I felt very liminal—caught between second-generation Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans, belonging to neither group and feeling not Asian or American enough. This is similar to the way I felt as a bisexual person, potentially not gay enough and not straight either. Maybe that’s why I am so passionate about abundance, about exploring my omnivorous curiosities and delving into complex, contradictory emotions in As She Appears — to show that I am enough, and more.
And as a queer fourth-gen Chinese American debuting over 40, it can feel a bit lonely. I think about all of the poets of color my age who didn’t feel supported in undergrad and didn’t pursue poetry. I’m glad I waited, and there should be more of us debuting over 40. I want to read those books. I am so thankful for the millennials who helped me on my poetic journey, who overwhelmingly make up my community and are writing so brilliantly. It’s humbling and inspiring.
Shelley Wong is the author of As She Appears (YesYes Books, May 2022), winner of the 2019 Pamet River Prize. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman, MacDowell, and Vermont Studio Center. She is an affiliate artist at Headlands Center for the Arts and lives in San Francisco.
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.