Poet in the Mirror: Dorothy Chan
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, Dorothy Chan— author of BABE (available now from Diode Editions)— shares insight into creating a form, writing discipline, and book babies.
On Submissions and Rejections
Congratulations on this beautiful collection! (And I know it’s wrong to judge books by their cover, but BABE’s cover is absolutely incredible!) Do you mind sharing for our readers: What was BABE’s relationship to rejection? How long and what did it take to find a home?
Thank you so much, Saba! I am proud to say that BABE does not have a relationship to rejection. I was lucky enough to team up with Diode Editions for a second time, after the wonderful journey of Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019). Side note: I should clarify that I absolutely know rejection all too well, but I feel lucky that with BABE, no rejection happened.
I owe so much to Zoë Shankle Donald and Patty Paine, founder of Diode Editions – they’re a dream team. I admire Diode’s mission, how closely and attentively they work with authors, and the variety of works they publish. It was a no brainer for me to want to work with them again. Basically, last summer, I realized I had a chapbook of poetry—well, what I thought was a chapbook. I was gathering an influx of Triple Sonnets (my signature form) from the past few months, including the opening of BABE, “Triple Sonnet, Because I’m a Lucky Girl.” I contacted Patty (she’s just the best), and after a few months, I got an email from Zoë, and they told me that after the layout and page count, BABE is actually a full-length book, rather than a chapbook. And so, I ushered in the birth of my third full-length book of poetry (fourth collection overall). My books are my babies. It’s a beautiful thing.
On Created Form
Let’s talk about form! Specifically, the triple sonnet. When did this form come to you, and when did you decide to make it a recurring feature within your book?
The Triple Sonnet has now been with me for many years. I created it in grad school. Anne Carson, of course, has “Triple Sonnet of the Plush Pony,” but my Triple Sonnets
take on a different form. One of those moves is the “sawtooth margin” or how every other line of my Triple Sonnet is indented. It’s like a haircut. Gotta get those waves and layers in. But seriously, the sawtooth margin aids the movement and enjambment and pace and rhythm of the Triple Sonnet. It also gives it some style on the page—some excitement—some emphasis of that first and last word of the line—how the right word moves the poem forward—how that right word takes us on the journey of the endless sonnet volta.
I’m forever indebted to my Poetry Mom (I have a whole family tree), Lyrae Van Clief- Stefanon. Van Clief-Stefanon’s Black Swan and ]Open Interval[ are essential reads. I had the honor of working with Lyrae during my undergraduate years at Cornell. She taught me so much about form, especially on sonnets and sestinas. I remember the day she introduced the sonnet form to us. She showed us a video of two very attractive, athletic dancers, a woman and a man, dancing around each other in a box-like structure. There was a lot of tension in each scene. When the video was over, Lyrae talked about the “tension and release” in relation to the sonnet, and the importance of breath. The video / dance served as a metaphor for what a sonnet should do. I finished off that semester writing two sonnet crowns. Part of those crowns became my chapbook, Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017).
I kept working with sonnets throughout my education, and one day during my PhD, I created the Triple Sonnet. I remember the poem started out as a Double Sonnet, but that seriously didn’t feel right. You think about magic numbers. You also think about how when you love something, you don’t want just one. You probably want three. Or one hundred. Or one million. That’s how I feel about sonnets. That’s how the Triple Sonnet was born. Or think about the formation of One Direction years ago—Why have one Justin Bieber when you could have five? I can go on and on. And some other time, I’ll talk about my comparisons of the Triple Sonnet with the Dirty Martini.
On Ordering a Collection
I love that the section titled “Sapphic Babe Origin Story” comes at the end of the collection, because it feels like all the other poems are leading up to this creation of this incredible queer babe who truly comes into their power after dissecting queerphobia in family and popular culture. How did you decide to put this book into sections, and what motivated the ordering of the poems within the collection?
Thank you so much! That section means so much to me, and I’m so happy to talk about its ending placement. BABE is comprised of four sections: “I. Three Triple Sonnets for the Price of Admission,” “II. American Potato Babe,” “III. Whiskey Soda Babe in a Blue Fur Coat,” and “IV. Sapphic Babe Origin Story.” Having four sections is unusual for me; I usually do a triptych. But this time I was attracted to four because I wanted a true preface section (I. Three Triple Sonnets for the Price of Admission) and a true ending section that functions as its own volta (IV. Sapphic Babe Origin Story). I’m attracted to the idea of an “origin story” ending a book because everything leading up to the “origin
story” is formative in its own way.
I’ll tell you something else: I refuse to be a bridesmaid at weddings, and I refuse to attend weddings in general. Side note: If you’re a good friend and you’re getting married, I’ll send you a nice gift, but unfortunately, I can’t attend. As a queer femme, I just can’t do it. That’s where “A Triple Sonnet About Queer Girl x Straight Girl Friendships” came from. The poem also comes from this irony of watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for many years. Now I look back, and I’m like Wow, how was any of that entertaining. How is professing your love to some guy in a hot air balloon appealing in any way? How is a beachside proposal romantic? I mean, I can’t stand going to the beach because of how the sand tickles my feet. I also don’t understand the logic of wearing a prom-like dress to greet a bunch of suitors when you’re way past the age of prom.
In terms of the ordering, I always knew I wanted three lucky Triple Sonnets to begin the collection. There’s such elegance to the idea, especially with the opener of “Triple Sonnet, Because I’m a Lucky Girl” being so Golden Age of Hollywood vixen.
What is one piece of craft advice that motivated you throughout the writing of this book? Alternatively, what is a piece of craft advice that you don’t practice yourself?
My craft advice to myself was simple: discipline. I’m an Assistant Professor, so summers and any breaks are really the time to work on my poetry. It’s so simple, but like anything, writing happens when the creator is disciplined. Or it’s how I have over one four hundred poetic fragments in my Notes app at all times. Just like every other human on this planet, I bring my phone everywhere, so you’ll bet that I have a ton of interesting notes. I also love simply taking a walk and remembering a memory or perhaps a reality show clip or maybe a fall runway collection from a few years ago and then taking copious notes.
Who is BABE dedicated to?
BABE is dedicated to Rita Mookerjee and Taneum Bambrick, the ultimate babes. Rita and Taneum are both so infinitely talented and kind. I feel very lucky that they are my partners in life.
Dorothy Chan (she/they) is the author of most recently, BABE (Diode Editions, 2021), which was a finalist for the 2022 Sheila M. Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club, in addition to Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). They were a 2020 and 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, a 2020 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, and a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University. Their work has appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Editor Emeritus of Hobart, Book Reviews Co-Editor of Pleiades, and Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Honey Literary Inc., a 501(c)(3) literary arts organization. They were the 2021 Resident Artist for Toward One Wisconsin. Visit their website at dorothypoetry.com.
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.