Yemassee Interview: 5 Questions with Jane Wong

Jane Wong's "What My Brother and I Know" and "When You Died" appeared in Issue 23.2.

1. How would you describe your journey as a poet?

My journey as a poet was definitely roundabout. I began as a fiction writer, but found that I had trouble with plot. Everything would be set: characters, place, dialogue, etc. Yet, nothing truly happened. Can a narrative move without plot? I fell in love with poetry because of its open-endedness; when I first started writing, I wrote solely in fragments and sections. I was trying to craft a narrative through non-linear verse. I’ve always loved storytelling. Like the experience of migration itself, narrative is multi-directional and may be missing pieces. Then I fell in love with the ear in poetry. The beauty of slant and internal rhymes, the distance our ear travels to make connections. Sound is emotional; I think about the joy in Lorine Niedecker’s “sublime slime song”!

2. What kind of poems/poets are you most drawn to?

I’m drawn to poems that make me go “oomph” – in the tangled space of the brain and heart. I love poems that challenge me, that make me reconsider the human condition, that remind me why we write. I’m drawn to poets who also have clear stakes –giving voice to that which is silenced. As Audre Lorde writes, poetry “is a vital necessity of our existence.” Poets I love include (and there are so many I could include): Kaveh Akbar, Khaty Xiong, Don Mee Choi, Aracelis Girmay, Kim Hyesoon, Lucille Clifton…

3. Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?

Obsessions stay with me for life. Akin to Nathaniel Mackey’s long poem, “Song of the
Andoumboulou,” some poems just don’t stop. I’ve always been obsessed with my mother. Her wavy hair, her mole right above her eye, her fur coats, her laughter through her teeth. I’ll always write persona poems in her voice. I’ve always been obsessed with undergrowth too – fungi, snails. The mucus of the world!

4. Can you talk about your poems “What My Brother and I Know” and “When You Died” and how they came to be?

The first poem considers childhood knowledge. How do we understand the world around us, particularly the rules of a trembling, potentially dangerous world? My brother and I grew up in a Chinese American restaurant in a Jersey strip-mall. We spent most of our days surrounded by adults. This poem considers curiosity as part of knowledge – real and imagined: “We know that death / is as real as the cockroach // running a lap around /our cereal.”

The second poem addresses my missing family members during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). Many people starved during this time. While my family refuses to talk about this history, I can put together the small pieces I’ve gathered. This poem is part of a larger series addressing the dead. The poem that appears in Yemassee considers the significant gap between my experience and my grandfather’s experience. How can I weigh the fact that I grew up able to eat what I wanted, while they did not? I think about their bodies, about the process of starvation. If I could go back, I would give them everything I could. This intergenerational trauma moves forward too: “I see my mother, picking meat from the spine // of a fish carefully, as if she were pulling a tick out. / This frugality, this tender grazing - // our relation.”

5. If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow poets, what would it be?

To never write from a blank page. The blank page, at least for me, causes too much anxiety. Take 5-10 images you’ve gathered during the week and put them on the page. Move them around. Add to them, ask them questions, weigh them in your hands. And whatever you’re thinking about or feeling at that time, it will come through.

Jane Wong‘s poems can be found in anthologies and journals such as Best American Poetry 2015, Best New Poets 2012, Pleiades, The American Poetry Review, Third Coast, and others. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Fine Arts Work Center, Squaw Valley, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pacific Lutheran University. Along with three chapbooks, she is the author of Overpour (Action Books).