Writer Jane Wong Talks Poetry, Prejudice and Pork

Seattle poet weighs in on the 2015 Best American Poetry controversy, community and childhood in NJ
| Updated: November 27, 2018

Jane Wong is one of Seattle’s most accomplished poets. A graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a published author, her writing has appeared in the coveted Best American Poetry series. This year, her poem, “Thaw,” is featured in the anthology alongside the work of Michael Derrick Hudson, who used a Chinese pen name, Yi-Fen Chou, to obscure his identity and get published in the book. The move caused an internet uproar – and rightfully so – many calling Hudson’s move racist and hurtful. Wong, who moved to Seattle to work on a PhD at the University of Washington after earning her degree from Iowa, talked with me about the pain Hudson’s act caused. We also discussed her childhood in New Jersey, how water plays a role in her work, and much more.

Your poetry is beautiful and spare, it feels like a skeleton doing tai chi in the glistening sun. And often there are very crystal water metaphors present in your lines. I'm wondering, as someone who grew up on the East Coast in New Jersey, who lived in the central part of the U.S. in Iowa and who now lives on the far West Coast in Seattle, what role does water itself play in your psyche?

Being near water has always been important to me and my work; there's something deeply intense about the ocean--its ability to calm and destroy. On the East Coast, I would often go to Coney Island in the middle of January. Snow is everywhere, the ocean is roaring, and you are cold beyond belief. And I would scurry over to Nathan's and eat the most gloriously warm hot dog. I love that feeling of the extreme. When I was land-locked in the places I lived (in Iowa and Montana), I tended to write about feeling endless (the plains and fields) and claustrophobic (the mountains). When I first moved to Missoula, I was struck by how dark the sky was at night. It turns out that "the sky" I was referring to was a mountain. Mountains can eclipse! The ocean also represents movement--across countries, borders, languages. In "The Tribute Horse," poet Brandon Som writes beautifully about "coaching papers," which the Chinese community used in the early 20th century to help new immigrants: "Nights, I hauled the wet nets: names/Silent & breathless across my desk." Of course, I can't help but think about the ocean as a means of migration. In another poem of mine, "Encyclopedia, Vol." (in The Seattle Review), I write about the fluidity of this migration: "At daybreak, shipyards are overrun/with buckets of fish. I could slip and fall through."

The idea of falling through is pertinent: presence vs. absence, loss of self both mentally and physically, these are big themes in poetry. The theme also plays into the kerfuffle with this year’s Best American Poetry 2015 where author Michael Derrick Hudson used a Chinese pen name for a poem, which had previously been rejected many times, but was then accepted for BAP 2015. Did you have an opinion about this issue with the book you’re both included in, or did you want to stay away and let things stand where they fall?

What happened with Hudson and BAP was not a kerfuffle, but an act of deeply embedded anger, confusion and racism. There is a threat at the center of Hudson's act of yellowface. He is saying: you (meaning me, a person with Wong for a last name) do not deserve your success. And of course, that is deeply hurtful. If I could write poems without having to deal with people like Hudson, I would love to. But being a carefree poet is not a privilege I have. After Hudson, there will still be people questioning my worth and my talent. I have to address such insulting provocations as much as I have to write, write, write and spotlight the work of writers I love--particularly poets of color who are under the same dangers of silence. If you'd like to read more about my response, please do check out AAWW and my contribution to "Yi-Fen Chou: A Forum." I am extremely proud to be in BAP this year and thankful for being selected. As a writer, reader, and teacher, I love poetry deeply; it is a risk I take daily. I refuse to let Hudson take away from this moment of joy and hard work!

Do you think you learned anything about yourself as a poet, specifically, or anything about race, generally, since the Hudson fallout?

What I learned the most is the importance of a strong community. I need to surround myself with people I care about and people who care about me--and that goes beyond the work itself. Writing, naturally, is personal. When someone threatens your work through racism, you are naturally going to be upset. I am thankful for all of my friends and supporters who sent me messages to make sure I was okay. As we move forward, solidarity is as necessary as putting words to paper. I will continue to support the work of people of color--in the literary community, in the classroom and on my bookshelves.

Part of that support, I can only assume, might be around a dinner table, which brings me to my most important topic: food! You’re known for your love of food, especially when it incorporates pork. Tell me, what does a good meal do for your writing soul?

I grew up in a Chinese take-out restaurant on the Jersey Shore and that experience has shaped my work immensely. I was surrounded by the vibrant world of food: the bright lacquer of oyster sauce, the endless cartons of eggs, the heads of ducks, the burnt ends at the bottom of the rice pot. I remember being locked in the meat freezer, trading egg rolls for a slice of pizza next door, and shelling shrimp. Food is everything to me and I am thankful for it; my mother grew up in a small village in southern China and could only afford to eat meat once a week. When I was growing up, pork was my favorite; it was a sign that "we made it." That said, as much as I love pork madly (all of the pig: the belly, the blood, the ears, etc.), I actually grew up with lots of vegetables: gigantic black mushrooms, eggplant, mustard greens, the longest string beans you'll ever see. My favorite dish in the entire world is a super simple Cantonese dish: whole ripe tomatoes, an egg, ginger, garlic, and soy sauce over rice. If I could eat that dish every day of my life, I would. It keeps me tethered to the core of how I grew up. Writing is similar in this way. Whenever I get bogged down, I return to the "ingredients" I love: image and sound.

Finally, I’m interested in your writing life in Seattle. You came here as a graduate student after getting your Master’s at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and have stayed in the city – what about the local writing community and the city itself feels conducive to creating more of your elegant and, at times, brutal poems?

I've grown to deeply love Seattle over these years. It's incredibly beautiful--the moss, the mountains, the lakes, the fog, the sharp air. Yet, it's also incredibly difficult. As someone from the East Coast, I often felt lonely here and misplaced. But, if you seek out community, it will slowly come to you. I've been thankful for the amazing writers here in Seattle and the support of communities such as the Hugo House. Seattle is a literary community that's continually growing. As a curator for Margin Shift, a poetry collective reading series, I am excited to host new poets who just moved here alongside poets who have lived here for years. I think it's also important to create communities across cities, states, and countries - moving the "local" into a more open, fluid space. I love hosting out-of-town poets such as Sally Wen Mao. As for my own work, all the places I've lived help create an amalgamation of imagery--a little lyric monster made up of Seattle, Montana, Iowa, Hong Kong, Jersey and New York.


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