Interview by Mag Gabbert
Mag: Nature plays a big role throughout your first collection, Overpour (published by Action Books in 2016), despite the fact that the poems also contain images and settings that are more urban and/or domestic. This tension manifests via the title of one of the collection’s long poems, “Pastoral Power,” which asks us to question the extent to which rural life and nature should be idealized as “a luxury.”
To some degree, I see your work engaging with the pathetic fallacy, with the idea that nature imitates or expresses our human emotions. Or, more specifically, I see moments throughout your poems that are like little anti-fallacies; they show the human body imitating elements of nature. Some examples include: “A leaf turns in the dark / and it is your back”; “My eyes were as large as tidal pools”; and “Mid-day, a deer startles me and I play dead.” Can you talk about your relationship with nature and about how that factors into your writing?
Jane: Wow, thank you so much for this close reading of my poems and also for bringing attention to my warped sense of the natural world! Whether I want it to or not, climate change finds its way into my work. In “Pastoral Power,” I couldn’t stop thinking about the blurred line between the natural and manmade world—the messy entanglement of rural and city spaces. The documentary Last Train Home spoke to the 130 million migrant workers who travel back to their rural home villages for Chinese New Year—all traveling from major boom cities like Guangzhou. I think about this factory life, of my own family trying to make ends meet. About leaving the village for a “better life” and what we give up as a result. Sometimes that means giving up being closer to the earth. In a recent poem called “Everything” in Poetry, I write: “When washing her feet, my grandmother tells me she spent decades without shoes, wonders if the mud misses her.” Now, she lives in a studio apartment in Seattle, along a street full of traffic. I have a complex, ever-changing relationship with the natural world. I deeply want to care for it and worry each day. Perhaps poetry is a means to get a bit closer, nose-close.
Mag: Some of the pieces in Overpour contain a good deal of subtle musicality; the reader might fall into a stream of rhythm within a poem and then sort of ping against its internal rhymes. For example, I think of this section in “Debts”: “In the boredom of six o’ clock / My brother plays with his loose tooth // On the news, someone shoots his brother by accident / If I could drape guilt over me // Garlands of I’m sorry for pushing you […]” Here, I notice the rhymes connecting “tooth,” “news,” “shoots,” and “you.” Elsewhere in the piece, there are other rhyming clusters, such as “there,” “flares,” and “downstairs”; and “loose,” raccoons,” and “rooms.” Would you say these are elements that you cultivate consciously? I also wonder whether you think about musicality when it comes to work by other poets you admire—if so, what makes those qualities important to you?
Jane: I love this question about music; I used to play piano and clarinet growing up. I was terrible at both, but I loved how you can touch these objects and make something bellow forth. I feel maybe similarly about poetry. I admire poets who seem to dwell in the luscious depths of sound – poets like Lo Kwa Mei-en. I have to work at it. Sound and meter don’t come to me in the first draft like images do. I have to follow my ear when I return to the draft. I have let myself lose a bit more control in terms of content and let the sound of a word roll around in my mouth for a while. I love when poets have that visceral joy with sound—especially in moments of almost ecstatic ridiculousness, like Lorine Niedecker’s “sublime slime song.”
Mag: Throughout Overpour there are several recurring themes, such as debt, spilling and/or over-ness, food, cooking, and the nuclear family. But, the collection also contains several smaller-scale echoes that manifest through particular images. The poems “Pastoral Power,” “No Need for the Moon to Shine in It,” and “Encyclopedia, Vol.” include the following iterations of one such image: “I am wrapped / in her sweater, a failing sight”; “like a thick winter scarf my mother wraps / around both of us”; “My father wraps a leather jacket around my brother’s shoulders”; and “I unwrap / a scarf from my neck, reveal”. The effect, for me, is almost like a recurring dream, or like a sense of déjà vu. Snow and flying insects also appear regularly.
There are similar kinds of echoes throughout many books of poetry; I used to call them a poet’s “obsessions,” but now I’m not totally sure whether that’s the right term. Where do you think these recurring images come from, and why do they seem to belong in poetry?
Jane: Yes, obsessions and dreams. Maybe another word to think about reoccurring images: constellations. I tend to think about my returning images like stars that connect with each other, building a narrative in a non-linear fashion. Insects seem to always appear in this way. We tend to overlook or forget (or squash!) these small creatures. With so many of them in my poems, I hope they gather a kind of reverberating power. A constellation of look-at-what-we-don’t-look at. Repeating images also allows me to have some sort of control. I love Fanny Howe’s essay on bewilderment, in which she writes, “for myself, a poem emerges by itself, like something developing in a dark place.” I feel akin to this and also seek bewilderment in my process; yet, perhaps imagery allows me to light my way through.
Mag: Overpour contains a series of poems written in the voice of your mother. These pieces can be identified by their titles, which also indicate her age within each one: “Twenty-Four,” “Twenty-Five,” “Twenty-Nine,” “Thirty,” and “Forty-Three.” I find it especially interesting to note how the speaker—your mother—sometimes engages with or talks about you; i.e., “Yesterday, Jane / leaned against the stove // and burnt both her elbows. / To be responsible for // another life, I loathe it. / I did say loathe.”
These pieces make me think, to an extent, about some of the recent conversations that have taken place within the poetry community regarding persona poems. Of course, writing in the voice of your mother is very different from writing in the voice of a public figure, or a fictitious character, or, in some cases, a collective group or identity. Are there any specific criteria that you think persona poems need to adhere to in order to work effectively? And, what does this form potentially contribute to certain poems that couldn’t be achieved otherwise?
Jane: Yes, there’s such a broad range of intimacy with persona poems. I love Morgan Parker’s poems in the voice of Beyoncé for instance in There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé. I return to persona poems too from writers like Langston Hughes, such as “Mother to Son.” I’ve only written persona poems from the perspective of my mother – and just one difficult poem from my father’s voice (“The Good Work”) since he’s not in my life. I decided to write in my mother’s voice because I wanted to see all of her – not just my mother as a mother. I wanted to see her vengeful side, her daughter side, her sexual side, her arranged-to-be-married side. Persona asks for empathy and curiosity, I think. I’m also very similar to my mother in many ways; writing in her voice allows me to blur with her.
Mag: I also want to address the two poems you recently published with us in Issue 2 of Underblong—“Dinner and A” and “When You Died.” On the one hand, I see many similarities between these pieces and the poems in Overpour. For example, they contain references to snow, crickets, slugs, fish, the neck and/or throat, and—in the case of “When You Died”—to your mother. But, for me, these poems seem slightly less dreamy and less fragmented; I consider them more conversational, more talky. Although a similar feel sometimes manifests in Overpour’s long piece “Ceremony,” I wonder whether you see new patterns emerging in your newer work. Are these poems part of another collection you’re working on; and, if so, what sets that collection apart in terms of tone, style, and theme?
Jane: Great question—this is something I’m trying to figure out as I write new work. Books are funny things; oftentimes, they have this kind of intensity about them when poems co-exist together. Like a town! I really love writing poems that fall outside of manuscripts. “Dinner and A” definitely is one of those poems—a break from the vision of my second manuscript, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything. Yet, these “outliers” are still a part of who I am. There’s definitely a different tone in this poem—a brash, wallow-y heartbreak voice. A voice that hopes for healing, for love—which is important in all my poems. “When You Died” is definitely a part of my second manuscript and is for my family during the Great Leap Forward. In this poem, there’s a larger breadth—formally too. The other poems in this series look completely different. These poems take a bit of research too—truly horrifying research. Throughout this series, I want to articulate my difficulty in writing these poems—what it means to be gluttonous “in the world of the living,” knowing that I come from ancestors with such painful stories.
Mag: In your recent interview with Poetry Northwest, which was published in March of 2018, you refer to your dissertation—your “Poetics of Haunting project.” In that interview, you talk about the ways that histories can haunt us and about how ghosts can function as a part of the community. I’m interested in turning this lens more toward the vessel of the poem, if possible; for example—if you’re able to articulate your thoughts on this in a somewhat brief format—what do you think it means for a poem to be “haunting?” How do poems become haunted and how might they haunt us?
Jane: Ah, there’s a lot in this question—thank you! Here is a link to my digital site that addresses this question: www.poeticsofhaunting.com. I invite readers to explore and feel through the website. On this site, I invited numerous Asian American poets to meditate on the ways their respective histories impact their work—their poems, but also beyond their poems (the site includes video media, photographs, sound recordings, etc.). Poetry is my medium, but I am very curious about interdisciplinary approaches. In my project, I focus particularly on the ways in which social, historical, and political contexts “haunt” the work of Asian American poets—thinking through migration, war, colonialism, intergenerational trauma. I argue that these poets—and myself—move toward the “ghost,” toward these often hidden or silenced histories. A poem “haunts” for different audiences. When I read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book DICTEE for the first time, it haunted me in so many ways. Even though I am not Korean American, I did feel that deep sense of language loss—losing my own Cantonese growing up. When I write about my family and the Great Leap Forward for instance, I imagine this might have a different haunting impact on Chinese Americans—especially if they haven’t heard about this Maoist campaign or learned about how their families were impacted by it.
Mag: Finally, in the same Poetry Northwest interview, you mention your interest in fashion (via your mother), and specifically in dressing up, which you characterize as “a big part of [your] life.” With that in mind, do you think you could tell us exactly what you’d choose to wear if you could only wear one outfit everyday for the rest of your life? (As a note, this outfit doesn’t have to function as pajamas, too; you get to have PJs, but during the day you’d have to wear The Outfit).
Jane: Love this question! Yes, I am writing an essay on my mother’s sartorial history—and how it deeply impacted her confidence as a new immigrant in the U.S. I remember some of her outfits distinctly—as they are attached to memory. When she returned to China/her home village for the first time since leaving (I was fifteen or sixteen), she wore a Calvin Klein red-checkered sheath dress with giant black sunglasses. Total royalty, walking on a dirt road. As for me, I’d return to my mother for my dream outfit. I’d wear her black burnt-out velvet robe with her vintage fur collar. And heeled red mary-janes!
Jane Wong's poems can be found in places such as Best American Poetry 2015, American Poetry Review, POETRY, and others. Her essays have appeared in McSweeney's, Black Warrior Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships and residencies from the U.S. Fulbright Program, Artist Trust, 4Culture, the Fine Arts Work Center, Bread Loaf, Willapa Bay AiR, Hedgebrook, the Jentel Foundation, SAFTA, and Mineral School. In 2017, she received the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist award for Washington artists. She is the author of Overpour from Action Books, and How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which is forthcoming from Alice James Books. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.