JANE WONG, IN CONVERSATION
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Jane Wong is the author of two poetry collections: How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James, 2021) and Overpour (Action Books, 2016). Her debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, is forthcoming from Tin House in May 2023. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships and residencies from Harvard's Woodberry Poetry Room, the U.S. Fulbright Program, Artist Trust, the Fine Arts Work Center, Bread Loaf, Hedgebrook, Willapa Bay, the Jentel Foundation, and others. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.
Congratulations on How to Not Be Afraid of Everything! It’s such a well-crafted, tenacious, and rich collection and resonated so deeply with me, having come from very similar experiences. “Everything” is one of my favorite poems of all time. I was really proud of myself for understanding the Chinese characters. How did “Everything” develop? What does the word “everything” connote to you?
That means the dumpling-filled world to me that my book resonated with you, thank you! "Everything" is definitely a central poem in the collection, especially since it's referenced in the title. I wrote this poem inspired by my dear friend and fantastic poet Chen Chen. He has a poem called "Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls" and at the end of that poem he writes: "No, I already write about everything --" and begins to list his "everythings." I teach this poem often and have my students write through their "everything"s (the themes, questions, things, people, creatures, etc. that keep coming back to them). And I knew I had to do it myself! These are my obsessions-- from language loss to my mother to my gambling father to the constant gaze of toxic white men. I am illiterate in Chinese and I only have a beginning/intermediate grasp of Cantonese. So, hilariously, I had to google translate the Chinese -- which I think some readers of Chinese might notice! It's a kind of inside joke -- that I had to do that. It makes the line "Sometimes I dream in Cantonese and I have no idea what is being said" even more haunting I think.
Visually, the book is broken up into six sections, which are each divided by a page with an illustration of a wave. At every consecutive section divider, the wave seems to be retreating and finally, the collection ends with an illustration of a moon. Can you talk about the visual creation of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything?
Love this question! I have the design team at Alice James to thank for the beautiful interior, as well as the cover artist Kimothy Wu. I knew I wanted this artwork from Kimothy for the cover, thinking about that almost-touching moment between the girl and the lion. I fell in love with that terror and awe, this possibility of falling into the lion's maw. It feels both terrifying and startling. I also loved the color -- what I like to call "intestinal pink." That feels so right for all the guttural imagery in the book -- and all the writing about food! I really loved how this lion also lives in a kind of galactic space--- space waves. And, as you write, there's so much constant retreating in the section dividers -- how the space waves move across through time (the intermingled past, present, future). I love how the design time included a moon at the end, a kind of mirror/reflection moment. I felt like it was that moment of touching my ancestors!
I love that! The collection contains a great deal of imagery related to animals and the natural world—boar, rat, snake, worm, moss, mud, beet, etc. How does nature influence you and your work?
It took me, surprisingly, a long time to notice how many creatures show up in my writing. I'm a bit obsessed with the strange underworlds of our environment -- especially creatures and flora that tend to get overlooked. I love slugs, rats, and mud. I really love low tide and getting my feet in the mud -- and the anemones that spring up in their green-pink glory. I feel like animals have these rhythms all their own -- and I've always wanted that kind of interior knowledge. Like, how does a worm know that I don't? It's funny because I grew up in a strip mall -- surrounded by parking lots and cement. But there were ants and pigeons and worms and accidental cilantro patches too. It's all nature!
Sections of “When You Died” have appeared in Foundry and Underblong. How did you decide on the final version to include in this collection?
I think of "When You Died" as a long, serial poem--- which can be hard to publish as one cohesive whole! I sent along excerpts to wonderful journals like Underblong and they did such a great job of retaining its singular, yet cohesive story. I knew I wanted to have this long poem in the center of the book, as its own section, but I didn't necessarily know the order of these sections yet. I think of this poem as an epistolary, a long letter, to my ancestors who didn't survive the Great Leap Forward. I wanted to collapse time, to reach my hand to the other side of their world--- and feed them the tomato soup I was eating while researching this time period. I knew I wanted to end that poem with an opening -- with a bowl cracking open. That opening portal ends up being the last poem in the book, "After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly." In that poem, my ghosts actually reply to "When You Died," which feels like a kind of magic I still have a hard time finding words for!
Speaking of researching, you’ve mentioned that you couldn’t research your history through interviewing your family. How did you access the history that you discussed in How to Not Be Afraid of Everything?
Ooh, this is a tough question because it was pretty hard to research a history that is censored. There was a great deal of propaganda during the Great Leap Forward -- so much so that the numbers of deaths due to famine are continually contested (ranging from 15 million to 55 million). I primarily referred to Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, which was so fundamental to uncovering what happened during that time to my family -- his book is also deeply personal. It was a hard book to read and to be honest, I couldn't fully "read" it. I had to read a few pages and walk away. It was emotionally too difficult. While I couldn't speak directly to my family about what happened, I did listen very closely to what they did tell me -- in between moments of silence, i.e. why I'm not allowed to waste food. How my grandfather was adopted by a man in the village, who lost his family. This close listening -- like tuning your ear toward the center of the earth -- was central in personal stories of such deep trauma.
Thank you for sharing that. Silence is as significant as substance in many of your poems. In “MAD,” you ask readers to fill in the silence. How have you come to accept and act against cultural and familial silence, as well as the silence of Asian and Asian American history from Western education?
Thank you for reading "MAD" so closely-- that poem is such an important one for me, thinking about rage and resistance. As the poem starts, it asks the readers to fill in the silence via mad libs, but then it gets progressively harder to avoid the word I want you to use (i.e. "you have big eyes for a ___"). There's anger in these expectations, in constantly being defined through the white gaze. It was a really long journey for me in terms of speaking out and demanding to be seen. The thing is, I never learned about my own history; Asian American history is so often left out of our formative education. I didn't have an Asian American literature class in college or graduate school. The first time I taught an Asian American studies class, I cried over the copy machine; the class I was teaching was also the class I always wanted to take. Whenever I teach Asian American literature, it's incredibly emotional -- for me and my students. For them, it's the first time they've ever heard of Angel Island poetry. It's ten weeks of writing/art by Asian Americans -- beyond that one token book they read in high school (often, when I ask my undergrads to name a book by an Asian American writer on that first day, some of them say Memoirs of a Geisha.. which is written by a white man. This is how silenced we are). It is absolutely central to me as a writer and as a teacher to be in resistance together. That this is not just Asian American history, it's American history everyone should know.
Questions permeate through this collection. You end with the poem “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly,” which is filled with compelling questions. What role does questioning serve in your words and life?
Thank you for this beautiful question about questions! Poetry, for me, feels like a space where questions are fundamental. Poetry refuses clarity to a certain degree; that's what I love about it. The open-endedness of it, the question that leads to another question, the liminal space of not knowing (yet getting slightly closer). With that particular poem, I kept thinking about the questions as a means of communication—of what my ancestors would ask me. How would I answer? Is my answer also a question for them? Questions feel bewildering, yet they make me unearth what I thought was solid... I guess questions feel like excavation. Especially when it comes to my silenced history, I feel like I had to ask questions—and be open to the lack of answers.
Thank you so much for creating "The Poetics of Haunting," which is such a necessary and luminous project. How long did the project take? Do you see yourself extending this academic work?
Thank you so much for exploring this project! "The Poetics of Haunting" website is part of my dissertation--which explores the haunting impact of migration, war, and empire on the work of Asian American women poets -- generations after. While my dissertation is a monograph book, I really wanted a public scholarship/digital aspect--to reflect what each poet wanted to share in terms of haunting. I was so lucky to be able to speak to Don Mee Choi, Pimone Triplett, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Cathy Linh Che, Bhanu Kapil, Sally Wen Mao, Christine Shan Shan Hou, Monica Sok, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (from afar/across the spiritual/earthly world). And I gave each poet multiple options to respond with their ephemera. Bhanu recorded a kind of meditative altar offering. And Cathy shared family photographs. It was so moving! This particular digital humanities project took a year and half, but the dissertation took about three. I'd really love to return to this book one day, and find more creative ways to intertwine my creative and scholarly loves!
I’m so excited for Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City! Can you tell me more about your upcoming memoir?
I'm both excited and nervous about my memoir, as this book feels super vulnerable -- and of course, writing in a different genre is nerve-wracking. The memoir is out on May 16th next year, via Tin House. I like to think of it as a love song for Asian American immigrant babies who grew up low-income and working class. There are lots of stories of growing up in a restaurant, about illegal dental care in New York City, and my father's gambling addiction. There's also a lot about hypersexualization as an Asian American woman-- and how I can't separate where I come from from my intimate experiences. My mom is a big thread throughout, thinking of her as the true poet in my ancestral line! I hope the book is funny and weird and felt. And I hope I made baby Jane proud -- who, in part, I wrote this book for.