Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Jane Wong read her poems in the intimate setting of the WordsWest Literary Series salon held at C & P Coffee Company in West Seattle. On this particular night, Jane shared the stage with a nationally known poet, Terrance Hayes, and the café was standing room only. Even so, her ability to reach her audience even in a packed space and her generosity of spirit impressed me. After I’d read (and reread) her new book Overpour and listened to her live reading, I caught up with Jane to ask about both the new book and her writing life.
Susan Rich: How do you prepare for a reading? What factors do you consider in choosing your poems, planning (or not) your introduction to each poem?
Jane Wong: While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, I actually don’t prepare! At least, not in terms of planning out what I will 100 percent read. I am secretly a pretty anxious person and I find that preparing for a reading makes me way too nervous! I simply bring new and old poems with me and allow myself to be inspired by the audience—by the atmosphere around me. I think to myself: which poems would feel good in the air here? What risks do I want to take (with reading new work, which I almost always do)? I like that each reading feels different in its intimacy to me. There is no “rehearsed set.” I love telling short stories before or after poems. I want the audience to get to know me. I want readings to feel a little bit like sitting at a dinner table—sharing stories of ridiculous moments from my family. That makes me less nervous.
Rich: Which is a favorite poem to read to an audience? And what makes it so?
Wong: I love reading “Twenty-Four,” a persona poem in my mother’s voice, because it reveals her vulnerability. I wrote about this poem on the Poetry Society of America’s “In Their Own Words” series. This was the first poem I wrote in my mother’s voice. I like reading this to an audience because it has stakes—it tells her story of migration. Of the risk she made to come to this country. And every single day, people make this risk. I hope that listeners understand the realness of migration, of its emotional impact too.
Rich: You recently read with Terrance Hayes at the WordsWest Literary Series in West Seattle where there is an unusual format of a “living anthology” where readers react to each others work and choose poems that create echoes off the other poet’s offering. How did sharing the stage with Terrance Hayes and participating in this unusual format allow you to hear your poems differently—if at all?
Wong: WordsWest was a wonderfully inventive format, especially since I don’t overly prepare for readings. I loved how this format facilitated deep listening and collaboration. The reading felt like a conversation. A gift. Terrance read a few poems about his father, which felt like an invitation to take an emotional risk. I didn’t even have “The Good Work” (the only poem I’ve written in my father’s voice) with me and had to look it up online, since it appeared in The Journal. My father’s not in my life and this is not an easy poem to read. It’s an older one too—a poem I almost forgot about. It was as if I was writing it all over again; I definitely had tears in my eyes.
Rich: As an audience member at the reading, I felt welcomed into your work; you explained poems that were in the voice of your mother, your father—things a reader could not know if just picking up your new, beautiful Overpour. Could you talk about that choice—to leave notes and epigraphs out of the book but to fill in the more personal information in person?
Wong: I think of reading a book and going to a performance as two different, but complimentary, events/reckonings. As a reader, I love developing questions—asking questions of the poet, of the poem. And oftentimes, when I go to powerful readings, I get an inside glimpse into that poet’s world. In this way, I save my stories for those in-person moments.
Rich: Ideally, what experience do you want your audience to take away after a live reading?
Wong: I hope that you want to run home and write. I hope that you want to come up and talk to me! I hope that people feel comfortable enough to say hello.
Rich: You have mentioned H.D. as an influence on your work. Can you talk more about how she is important to you and what you hope you’ve learned from her?
Wong: I started reading H.D. during my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; the incredible poet Hannah Sanghee Park introduced me to her. At first, I was struck by her early work—poems from Sea Garden. I loved the intensity of “Oread”—its use of synesthesia and expansive simplicity: “hurl your green over us/cover us with your pools of fir.” This was a poet who was more powerful than its “Imagist” tag (I am not a fan of Pound). Then I read Trilogy and was knocked over by its breath and breadth. I have always been struck by H.D.’s voice. She demands to be listened too, while remaining vulnerable through beguiling/curious assertions. On my birthday each year, I turn to a random passage in my copy of the collected H.D. and that’s my “fortune” for the year. I began this tradition with my friend Hannah. This year’s fortune: “O do not weep, she says/for ages past I was/and I endure.”
Rich: Your poem, “Ceremony” is divided into eight sections with themes of accidents, death, desire, and self-protection moving through them (as well as other concerns). Could you talk about how this poem came about?
Wong: This poem originally began with an epigraph from Sylvia Plath: “what ceremony of words can patch the havoc?” “Ceremony” asks that very question—what are the rituals we cling to when there is so much terror in the world? How can we protect ourselves? This is a poem from a truly terrifying time in my life. A time when I needed to remind myself that I exist. The actual writing of this poem did that work. Poetry itself is a ceremony, a ritual that allows for resilience.
Rich: What are you working on now? Do you think in terms more of books or singular poems or something else?
Wong: I am excited about the next challenge in my writing life. If anything, I love being challenged. I’m working on creative nonfiction right now and will be spending July at Hedgebrook, a residency, working on essays. I plan to write a series of interconnected essays on my upbringing in a Chinese American take-out restaurant, located in a New Jersey strip-mall. One essay engages unlicensed dentists in NYC’s Chinatown; my mother and I would spend a great deal of time in Chinatown trying to find a dentist to give her fake teeth. These excursions were always on Sundays—the one day the restaurant closed. I hope to gather these essays into a collection—highlighting the stories of working-class Chinese immigrants, particularly women.
Rich: To young poets, to poets of color who are struggling right now and think no one cares what they have to say—what do you say?
Wong: I’d read them “won’t you celebrate with me” from Lucille Clifton, which helps me: “what did I see to be except myself?/i made it up/here on this bridge between/starshine and clay,/my one hand holding tight/my other hand.” And then I’d tell them to send me their poems, immediately. Because I want to read them, to care for them. And for those who don’t believe in you—use that as fuel to write, write, write.