Quinn Lewis: What was the conversation surrounding the origin of the “Secret Histories” project at the Asian American Literature Festival? How did it come about?
Jennifer Chang: I have been in conversation with Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis of the Smithsonian and Rob Casper of the Library of Congress about programming for the Asian American Literature Festival since it was first held in 2017. We agreed that among the most powerful events of that inaugural festival was the Intimate Lectures, personal accounts of the life in Asian American letters by established—to us, legendary and heroic!—writers. At the first festival, they were delivered by Karen Tei Yamashita and Kimiko Hahn; at the second, Arthur Sze and Monique Truong. Lawrence, Rob, and I were wondering how we could better showcase mid-career writers, and I speculated that every writer believes they’ve discovered a writer or artist that’s been transformative or pivotal to their artistic self-possession. It struck all of us that there’s an entire history of American literature and poetics, a ferociously potent discourse, that is secret, hidden, as yet uncovered: it felt important to support the Intimate Lectures, which are themselves urgent cultural historical documents, with a secret history of ourselves as Asian American artists.
Somewhere in our conversation, I mentioned in passing my adventure in Ireland looking for Wong May. I thought it was a funny, if embarrassing, anecdote about writers and their secrets; I had no intention at all of participating in the lectures. That Lawrence and Rob were so intrigued by the story and that I was so terrified by the prospect of thinking more about it made me think there’s something here I need to understand. I don’t think I was the only one amongst my fellow secret historians that felt like this.
QL: In these lectures, each writer brings to light a particular “lost” or overlooked Asian American poet. In their piece, Ching-In Chen uses the phrase “a flexible kind of laying bare.” In your piece, there is a laying bare of Wong May’s poetry, and to some degree the poet herself through your e-mail correspondence with her. But there’s also a laying bare of a very particular loneliness, later described as pain—“the loneliness of the Asian American poet.” You discuss what drew you to Wong May as possible antidote to this loneliness, which you describe as “unfathomable, boundless, acute.” What has the process of coming to articulate that loneliness “that has marked [your] life as a woman, a poet, and an Asian American” been like for you?
JC: I was lonely as a child and that loneliness propelled me to become a voracious reader. Writing soon followed. It wasn’t until I was older that I saw that this loneliness was shaped, in part, by my particular contexts—being a child of immigrants, for one; not speaking English at home, for another. As an adult, these contexts became increasingly complicated by personal decisions like marriage and children, decisions that invariably, startlingly reinforced my differences. I never could have anticipated how many bureaucratic forms you’re required to fill out once you have children, how many boxes you have to check to distinguish who and what you are, and how painfully aware you become that institutions emphatically gender family life to an alienating effect.
In graduate school, I briefly participated in a reading group on contemporary poetry and poetics. I was the only woman and the only person of color present at these meetings, though we once had a male faculty of color join us to discuss a scholarly work by a woman, which I now recognize was a kind of concession then. But I was aware of my difference as a fact rather than an impediment, and for the most part, I respected my classmates and was eager to see where the conversation would take us. I remember one week John Ashbery’s “The Skaters” generated rapturous discussion whereas the next week’s assigned reading by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge was met with timid silence. The braver ones took to teasing out within the text evidence of her race and gender; occasionally I’d get asked my thoughts, as if Berssenbrugge and I shared (marginalized) identities gave me (tribal) access. I did not like the pressure of having to be her spokesperson. I was mortified.
That was a revelatory moment. For much of my education, I had been trained to read the text as inviolable: either every poem was a well-wrought urn or the author was dead. (This has much to do with my age—I graduated college in 1998—and the schools I attended, where Asian American studies had not yet been consolidated into a department or program while I was a student.) It took years to shed these constraints. What I realized from that Berssenbrugge conversation is that the reader, too, cannot help but read from their subject position, through the lens of their identity. My classmates were not unintelligent, but they could not stop reading as straight white men, they could not stop essentializing the author’s difference, and they could not begin to reflect on how their perspectives as readers might be compromised and incomplete. I know this may seem obvious, but until then I hadn’t connected their failure to read reflectively to my own life as a writer.
In those years, I was just figuring myself out as a poet. My loneliness wasn’t only existential. My loneliness was a response to notes from editors, judges, professors, other writers: one inquiring if I ever wrote more “personal” poems, one inviting me to submit “Chinese” poems to a journal’s special race issue, one confused by a presumed discord between my biography and my subject matter, more than one complimenting my lack of racial or political preoccupation—so many committing what we now call “microaggressions.” For me, such kindnesses, as they were often meant to be, reinforced the ways that white subjectivity makes it feel impossible to ever be read well, let alone understood, as a writer of color. That’s not the loneliness of being a middle child or a straight-up weirdo, both of which I gladly admit to. It’s the loneliness of feeling that, as a writer, maybe I’m forging an inherently errant path. One of the reasons I wrote this essay is to challenge the ways we’ve—I’ve—been taught to read and to urge greater reflection on how reading itself articulates a subject position. I’m not at all writing for white readers, but I’m endlessly aware—as a writer and a teacher—that our critical methodologies—the processes by which we negotiate language, form, and meaning—too often and too easily devolve into limitations.
QL: You describe Wong May and her poetry as “irreverent,” “brutally intelligent,” “acerbic,” “wryly delicate,” and “bewitching.” May describes herself by saying, “There must be—certainly a perverse streak in me.” Brutal, irreverent, perverse—these are much sharper words than the word “unpleasant.” And yet, when unpleasant is leveled at May by the reviewer mentioned near the end of the essay, I feel the sting. Perhaps in part because, as you write, the male-identifying poet in the same review escapes harsh judgment and is labeled “sensitive.” We often see this injustice of “unlikeable” hurled at women in politics or female characters in fiction. Can you speak to that labeling of her work? Does that word unpleasant ever haunt your writer-mind, and what’s to be done with it?
JC: The use of the word “unpleasant” surprises and frustrates me. As a critic, I was struck by the laziness of making that assessment without interrogating it. It also struck me as rather retrograde as a critique. Susan Sontag observed, “Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible.” Terrible isn’t the same as unpleasant exactly, but both words indicate the interpretive richness of art’s negative affect.
Again, the problem here, for me, is how this particular reviewer reads the poem and to what extent his critique is informed by his own identity and his perception of Wong May’s identity. It’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that he’s a white man because he’s so quick to dismiss her work. Was he offended that she wasn’t more solicitous, that beauty was neither obvious nor foregrounded as content? He could have said the poems are “unpleasant” and then meaningfully engage with the confrontation and discord of her poetics, but he’s unwilling to convert reaction into insight. His reading of her work is limiting and limits her, and of course that’s both sexist and racist. Let’s get real, too: who wants pleasant poetry? For me, as a poet, the question of what a poem is—what it must be—overrides all.
I am certainly capable of being pleasant, but I have never actively sought (or felt compelled) to be pleasant in my work.
QL: The essay deftly balances personal investigation with a critical analysis of May’s work. And in this personal exploration is an honest and beautiful questioning. You write, “Is it so wrong to want someone to write to you? For you?” What makes you feel connected to a work of literature, or a poet’s body of work, and what makes you feel alienated from it?
JC: I’ve written elsewhere about grappling with the very unheroic qualities of my literary heroes and of our culture’s heroes. In a way, my last book, Some Say the Lark, arises out of this preoccupation, the essential incongruity between my identity and the tradition in which (and against which) I write. The tradition of poetry in English has historically excluded people like me—women, immigrants, people of color—and yet, this is my language, my art, my raison d’être. It can be an incredibly bitter reckoning. You don’t think about these things when you first read poems and fall in love with them; there’s no warning label on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Harmonium that their authors are racist, misogynist, and have questionable politics. And by the time I learned more about these and other authors, it was too late: those poems were my first teachers and had already taken their places as the rudiments of my imagination. Of course, so few of our influences from the past are without stain. I remember reading one of Emily Dickinson’s early letters in which she describes with palpable disdain a museum exhibit of Chinese artifacts. Heartbreaking!
So the history alienates, and particular individuals alienate. The question you point to is ultimately a wish for a connection that extends from the reader through the text to the writer, and I think one of the hardest discoveries I made in writing about Wong May is accepting that that wish is kind of impossible. She isn’t writing for me; she’s writing because she has to, audience be damned. But that’s okay. I’m still indebted to her work. For one, she revealed to me how painful it’s been to feel alienated from the books and writers I love. For another, reading her led me to reconsider my critical perspective. I needed to cultivate a critical perspective that incorporates the reader’s subject position, invites complexity, and does not necessarily resolve. You ask about connection, and I want to answer that without isolating aesthetic categories or elements of craft because I think that may be what I’m pushing against. What I’m trying to demonstrate in this essay and others is how our connections to what we read are above all social, that reading constellates our histories and cultures and is therefore interpersonal and potentially intersectional. What connects me to a work of literature is the experience of laying bare these constellations, to understand where I stand in relation to the text, to accept that interpretation is dynamic—potentially vexed but ongoing. For me, connection is less about aesthetics or craft than it is about developing a discourse that takes contexts seriously and doesn’t silence the reader, so I’m very happy that you thought the essay balanced the critical and personal well.
QL: Of Wong May’s work you write, “Because, the poet suggests, to look is not enough, even if it is safer.” Are there other poets you’ve read, forgotten or otherwise, who do this kind of work beyond looking in such striking ways, who perhaps have that “performance of delicacy” but also “engine of risk”?
JC: I think Emily Dickinson might be the high priestess of this seemingly delicate poetry that hints at a certain danger. I’ll name a few contemporary poets who’ve I read recently or reread often: Harryette Mullen, Rick Barot, Robyn Schiff, Cecily Parks, Jericho Brown, Hoa Nguyen, and two books I keep thrusting into people’s hands Stranger Baby by British poet Emily Berry and A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abduraqqib.
QL: You discuss in detail Wong May’s poem, “In Memoriam”—an elegy for Martin Luther King Jr. Do you see elegy or mourning seeping into or out of any of her other poems? Can you speak a little more to her sense (and lament) “that American society is incapable of doing the work of elegy”?
JC: There are poems of loss throughout Wong May’s oeuvre. Picasso’s Tears contains an elegy to Hilda Morley, a poet from the Black Mountain school, a beloved friend. Most prominent in my imagination is “The Making of Guernica.” It isn’t an elegy so much as a symphonic treatment of losses collective, cultural, and personal, and I think this poem might begin to suggest why I said American society struggles to effectively—meaningfully, truthfully—do the work of elegy: to remember, to grieve, and to console. Wong May writes about Picasso’s composition of war violence—the devastating bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War—to reflect on the artist’s responsibility to make sense of inexplicable loss, of pain that can unite us through grief but is utterly shattering. In the process, she considers 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, her cultural dislocation, what constitutes American belonging, and the rhetoric of war. It’s an ambitious, unwieldy poem, and the work of making sense of it is difficult and requires us to give in to the poet’s intrinsic doubt about art and language, which is also doubt about our humanity. I’m making a reductive comparison, but the difficulty of sifting through history, language, and emotional complexity is an experience that few are willing to take on in life. Part of that difficulty is we have to be okay with feeling terrible about ourselves, to reckon with our complicity, and we have to be okay that that feeling will persist even after confronting it, even after a provisional resolution.
At the heart of restorative justice is accountability; historically, though, the United States has favored punishment, which is retributive and destroys and banishes rather than forgives, thereby limiting the potential to heal. I’m of course thinking about our current political moment—the cataclysm of George Floyd’s murder and the now direly urgent amplification that Black Lives Matter. If Americans have been unable to do the work of elegy, it’s because they’ve chosen to not acknowledge what has been lost, not only human dignity but also our truth, our word. (How many phrases in the Constitution are merely lies?) They’ve chosen instead to look away, to not accept responsibility. When I think about American history and how the United States has been consistently dishonest about its role in widespread suffering and violence, the rampant discrimination within institutions and without, it’s clear that what we’re grieving is the disconnect between the idea of America and the fact of it. For Wong May, this idea plays out in “The Making of Guernica” as a carelessness with language, a love of language over a love of meaning. That’s a kind of loss too. So this poem immerses us in the American culture of loss, in histories of loss, and, in many ways, it meets our moment—what are these protests if not a collective outrage against the failure to grieve productively, humanely? It’s important, then, that within elegy’s procedural framework, Wong May’s poem attempts consolation but fails. That failure is her insight, but it also places responsibility on the reader to continue the work of elegy: to remember, to grieve, to somehow console. Here’s the ending:
I have not written a War Poem
Nor can this be a ‘Terror Poem’
Or an Anti-terror Poem
Or a Post-error Poem
From the ‘War on Terror’
There’s no discharge
I have failed you.
Jennifer Chang is the author of two books of poems, The History of Anonymity (University of Georgia Press, 2008) and Some Say the Lark (Alice James Books, 2017), winner of the 2018 William Carlos Williams Award. Her essays on poetry have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New Literary History, the Volta, and in books on Asian American literature and culture and the Harlem Renaissance. She co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman and teaches at George Washington University and at Bennington College’s MFA in Writing program.
Quinn Lewis has published poems in Shenandoah, the Southern Review, Cave Wall, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. She’s the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Claudia Emerson Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the 2019 RADAR Poetry Coniston Prize. She teaches English at SUNY Oneonta.