“Rebellion flourishes in constraint”: A Conversation with Jane Wong & A Folio of New Poems – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Jane Wong‘s poems can be found in Best American Poetry 2015, American Poetry Review, AGNI, Poetry, and others. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Fine Arts Work Center, Hedgebrook, and Bread Loaf. She is the author of Overpour (Action Books, 2016) and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell us about the larger project that these poems are culled from.  Where do these individual pieces fit in the manuscript as a whole?  What would you like readers to know before they delve into this excerpt?

Jane Wong:  Thank you for these questions, Kristina! There are a few poems here in my mother’s voice (“Fifty” and “Four”), which pick up from my first book, Overpour, which includes persona poems during that year of her life. “Four” was particularly hard to write, since I had to imagine my mother as a small child, trying to make sense of what was happening around her – personally and politically – during the Cultural Revolution. But I also wanted it to be a kind of love song to my grandfather/her father, who she was really close with. As well as a poem about her growing power and future resilience. The poem “The Factory” was also difficult to write. There are so many threads going on there. My mother just had a reunion with a bunch of her friends who worked in this factory in China – many, many decades later. They embroidered extravagant birds onto fabric. One of the factory women said to her, “We knew you’d be the first to leave,” hinting at my mother’s chances of being arranged to marry my father. The factory – confining in terms of labor and the body – couldn’t be separated from gendered expectations of marriage, of men. And what does that mean for me? And a future “daughter” of sorts? These poems are actually the budding seeds of my third manuscript!

KMD:  Your use of formal constraints in these poems is fascinating. The poems frequently break and revise familiar literary forms, carving a space for innovation within the tradition we have inherited.  What draws you to formal constraint?  What does it make possible for you as a creative practitioner?

JW:  I’m constantly enamored by how we inherent forms and break them – thinking about the deep relationship between form and content. I think what draws me to formal constraint is my personality. As a person, I’m weirdly both organized and a mess. I have a deep desire for control, but also for release and deluge. This happens in poetry for me – I find myself pleased by the control of couplets and exhilarated by the refusal of such a pattern (which you can see in “Fifty” – I wanted to echo my mother’s spinning vertigo toward the end). Every so often, I write sonnet crowns, just to challenge myself. Paradoxically, formal constraint opens up a poem for me. Rebellion flourishes in constraint.

KMD:  The poems featured here consider, with grace and remarkable stylistic variation, questions of family, shared history, and personal origin.  With that in mind, the familiar forms you’ve chosen to house these narratives – couplets, for example – seem fitting, given the speakers’ preoccupation with their inheritance, both artistic and deeply personal.  As you were writing, what did these received forms open up within the language and narratives of these poems?

JW:  Thank you for this generous comment and question. Inheritance is definitely something that circles around in my writing. For me, couplets have this cloyingly romantic quality – something that feels equal, balanced. And yet, in the poems like “Four,” which use a child voice, this lullaby-ish form is made a bit jarring through the left and right spacing. What does it mean that my mother says “this//is not how I pictured revolution.” Even as a small child, she’s aware that something is not quite right – something is about to shift dramatically (politically but also personally). “In “Praise the Lonely,” I wanted to write an ode to celebrate that which I was terrified of: being alone. What happens if we praise that which haunts us, that we want to shirk? There’s a sense of mercy here.

KMD: What archival texts have been most formative for your thinking about your own work?

JW:  I love this question! Propaganda posters from the Maoist era. Cookbooks and menus from Chinese American takeout restaurants from the ‘20s up to today. Photographs of my family, especially before I was born. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. Not sure if this would count, but also returning to Wong Kar-Wai films like In the Mood for Love. My mother’s closets – full of outfits that mark distinct memories/pivotal points in our lives.

KMD:  In addition to being an accomplished poet, you also teach in the MFA Program at Western Washington University.  I’d love to hear about how you envision the relationship between pedagogy and writing.  In what ways does mentoring others feed your own creative practice?

JW:  Yes, writing and teaching are inextricably intertwined. When I offer prompts in class, I write and share too – I am deeply grateful for my fellow poets and their generosity and vulnerability in terms of building community. Especially in a MFA program, I find it invigorating to work with poets on their theses, thinking through the process of making a book. One of my advisees, Joanna Gordon, is immensely talented; we’ve been working on building in texture into her manuscript – in terms of form and tone. As a result of our conversations, I too have returned to my second manuscript, keeping in mind our discussions about form and content, breath, and risk-taking. I love teaching and mentoring and wouldn’t be where I am without my mentors.

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?

JW:  While I’m always writing poems, I’m most energized and challenged by writing creative nonfiction these days. Writing essays is definitely more vulnerable for me. I also feel like they offer more space (quite literally) to delve deeper into some stories that I tend to stray away from. Some of these essays are about growing up in a Chinese-American takeout restaurant, my father’s gambling addiction and Atlantic City, and my mother going to illegal dentists in NYC’s Chinatown. My newest essay is for my brother, “To Love a Mosquito” which is forthcoming in Shenandoah. I’m working on an essay about gluttony and hunger right now, which begins with a close-up scene of rotting fruit. I’m gathering all these essays into a memoir and I’ve never been more excited and terrified. And my second book of poems, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything is finished and I’m excited to share that with readers in the near future!


A Folio of Poems by Jane Wong

Poems for Tupelo Quarterly