Rewriting History With Jane Wong

Jane Wong, a poet interested in rewriting histories, meets with Parallax Editors Emily Clarke and Kalista Puhnaty to discuss her upcoming projects and her writerly insight.

Jane Wong holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a former U.S. Fulbright Fellow and Kundiman Fellow. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley, and the Fine Arts Work Center. The recipient of The American Poetry Review’s 2016 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, poems have appeared in journals such as Pleiades, The Volta, Third Coast, and the anthologies Best American Poetry 2015 (Scribner), Best New Poets 2012 (The University of Virginia Press) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press). Her chapbooks include: Dendrochronology (dancing girl press), Kudzu Does Not Stop (Organic Weapon Arts), and Impossible Map (Fact-Simile). She is the author of OVERPOUR (Action Books). Currently, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pacific Lutheran University. Parallax Editors Emily Clarke and Kalista Puhnaty sat down with Jane Wong to discuss her upcoming projects and her writerly insight.

Q: How would you describe the impact your life has on your poetry and vice versa?

A: That’s a really good question. I think that you can’t really separate them— well, for me, I can’t separate my life and my poetry, I suppose. My own experiences definitely impact what I write about, but I also feel like writing poetry impacts my life, too. I think it’s easier to think one affects the other. I grew up in a restaurant in Jersey with immigrant parents and I tend to reference that a lot. So that’s impacted my poetry, but poetry also impacts my own well-being in a certain way. It’s not necessarily therapy but it calms me down to where I can actually write about the world around me. It helps me answer some big questions in the world, too. But mostly, poetry impacts my life in very surprising ways, sometimes when I least expect it.

Q: Your book, Overpour,  just came out, can you tell us a little about that and if you have any other upcoming projects?

A: Yeah, so, my book did just come out and it took about four years to write (and a couple years for it to be in the process of submission and printing) so to me it feels like a very old project, even though it just came out. I feel weirdly distanced from it. So I have been writing a lot, and I’m headed back to prose in a way. I just wrote this essay that is coming out in an anthology soon. It’s about growing up in a restaurant because that was a huge part of my life and I’ve never written any poems about it. There’s something about writing in prose that’s allowing me to have a more concrete description, so right now, the essay is written as a cheat sheet for other restaurant babies.

Q: In your TED Talk, “Going Toward the Ghost,” you mentioned the phrase, “rewriting history.” Can you tell us more about that and what it means for your writing?

A: Rewriting history is really important to me. There’s that desire to push back, to say, “you’re giving me this kind of version of the story and my responsibility as a poet is to raise up or reimagine the stories of my family that have never been told.” That has to do with major historical events that are totally glossed over in America in particular. I’m writing about the Great Leap Forward, which is this huge famine that happened in China and affected my family, but I didn’t learn about it until I was in college. I wouldn’t have ever known, so I guess that’s how I feel. There is a responsibility in terms of being a poet. I think a poet basically brings forth the stories that are often overlooked, and raises those big questions about who we are and how we’re related to each other in very blunt ways. I think that helps more than just scrolling through the news.

Q: Speaking of the Great Leap Forward, in which tens of millions of people died due to famine,  were you pressured to write about China’s history before you learned about that event?

A: I wasn’t, and it’s funny–those histories are forgotten, and I was looking for them. I was looking for something to tether myself to, because I felt so American; I felt so, in many ways, Chinese-American. Our families are such huge parts of our lives and I didn’t know a large part of their history, so I went looking for it in many ways. That said, I think that since I am an Asian-American writer, there was a pressure placed on me as a younger writer to write about themes that maybe were “expected.” Things like assimilation or mother-daughter relationships. At first I was just really annoyed by it, like, why do people want me to write about this one thing, and now I think of it as something that you have a choice in. And if you choose to do it, then you actually are rewriting history and building a community of people who are maybe addressing the same topic in different ways. I think my worry is that people don’t think it’s being addressed in different ways, but it is.

Q: As an accomplished poet, what advice would you give to young writers?

A: I think for young writers, the biggest thing that I would say is don’t underestimate yourself. You are on par with the writers you read and who are published. I think when you analyze a book in class, your work is at that level, too, and you should read and analyze it with the same exact intensity. Writing is not an easy career choice. You are going to get rejected a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I think for young writers, again, the most important thing is to never underestimate yourself. If someone says no to your work, it doesn’t mean anything. If you’re confident in your work, that’s all that can take you forward. I’m filled sometimes with indignance when someone thinks that I can’t do it or can’t make it happen— it even pushes me further. Even the phrasing of, “I’m an accomplished writer,” is silly to me, because of course I’m confident in my work, but I’m constantly emerging: you should always be a new writer every single day. You haven’t quite gotten to where you want to go. Enjoy the process of always trying to rethink yourself as a writer. I write a lot. I’ll just say that writer’s block doesn’t exist. To me, it doesn’t exist. It’s a myth.

Q: What do you want people to take away from your poetry?

A: What I want them to take away is that we should pay closer attention to the world around us. From the bee that’s dying in the grass, to your grandpa’s history that you never knew about, to Black Lives Matter. Just pay attention to everything; think about how it’s all interconnected. Somebody wrote about my book, it’s the quote on the back of the book, that the poems or the images or the narratives are seemingly disparate, but yet they are somehow interwoven together. I think that’s a takeaway. Nothing exists in a vacuum in this world. We’re all interconnected, and that’s the biggest takeaway. The title of my book is Overpour. It really means that you’re overwhelmed by a lot of things, and it’s okay to be overwhelmed by the fact that everything is interconnected, because it is, but it shouldn’t exist in a cave of sorts. Take a look at the world around us: see how we’re all connected in both beautiful and troubling ways.

Q: What is your writing process like?

A: I think all writers have a different process. For me it’s having a notebook full of images that I just run across during the day. I am not a writer who begins with a blank page because it gives me anxiety, I don’t like having a theme I want to write about. I don’t like having ideas of, “So, I’m going to write this poem about x, y, z.” I have a notebook full of lines I’ve collected across my week, my day, and I’ll grab ten at random. Then I’ll type them up on the page and I’ll play Bridge Builder or Jenga or something like that. I’ll move lines around, and I’ll add lines around them, and guess what? Whatever I was thinking about, my big life question, the theme, gets infused in those lines. It seems like poetry is exactly what I just mentioned; connecting pieces together. So, that’s my process. It sounds kind of silly, but, it’s very tangible. That’s why I don’t have writer’s block. I don’t want to just sit and watch that cursor blink at me on the word doc, I just want to have stuff that I can use. Revision is a big part of my life too, I write ten images down, and a majority of those lines are gonna be cut. I just recycle them into a word doc I call my “compost doc,” so if I’m not using them, they don’t disappear into the world, I recycle them back into the compost and I’ll use them for something else. I believe in the quality of all of my lines, but not in certain poems.

Q: Where do you draw the most inspiration from?

A: Definitely my mom and my family. Mostly because my mom is kind of wacky–she grew up very differently than I did, and she’s just a very strong, powerful woman. I draw a lot of inspiration from power; what happens when you’re powerless or when you have power.  I feel like that would define my mother because she was in an arranged marriage when she was nineteen, and came here, and had to figure out what to do next. I think a lot about her, and I sometimes write in her voice. Sometimes I’m not myself in my poems, and that to me is inspiration; stepping outside of yourself. You are no longer the speaker and that inspires me: risk, trying something new. The natural world inspires me, but I like to redefine it. We’re sitting in such a beautiful space, with the sun filtering through the trees, and I can draw so much inspiration from that. But, that raccoon eating my bag of Doritos in Seattle is also nature, and I want to draw inspiration from that, too. All of the nature in the world is inspirational, not just the kind we immediately think is beautiful.

Watch Jane’s Ted Talk: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Going-toward-the-ghost-Jane-Won

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