October has been a big month for Seattle poet Jane Wong. Her first full-length book of poems, Overpour, was just released on Indiana's Action Books. The book launch will be held Friday, October 21, at the Hugo House. She also just published an innovative and actually interesting digital dissertation project called The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry. Wong has been working on these two significant literary projects for years, and they're entering the world within weeks of each other.
Full disclosure: I went to the University of Washington with Wong for two years. We are also friends. But, so long as we're being all honest with each other, Wong and I haven't really hung out much during the last three years. That's because my job makes friendships impossible to manage, but mostly because Wong has been busy doing the slow, daily, time-consuming work of grinding it out in academia and in the literary world.
She's lived in Seattle for the last five years, in which time she's said yes to every opportunity to read her work in public and no to countless social evenings on account of work. She has published poems and chapbooks in literary journals and on small presses, given papers at academic conferences in the US and abroad, racked up national prizes/fellowships/residencies, taught writing at college and primary-school levels, and helped curate a local poetry series called Margin Shift, which promotes writers from traditionally marginalized groups.
Many hustling writers will be familiar with that kind of schedule, but Wong's degree of engagement and accomplishment are rare (some academics take longer to produce a comparable amount of work), and her monetary rewards have been relatively paltry, when they're monetary at all—lots of residencies and retreats, for instance, offer quiet places to continue working. The real reward of poetry lies in the work anyway, and she's given readers lots of fascinating stuff to pore over.
Let's start with her debut book, Overpour. (If you thought I wasn't going to reach for that pun, you vastly underestimate how horrible I am.) A poet's first collection can do a lot of things all at once. Wong's introduces readers to her many selves, pushes forward the ancient poetic conversation about the pastoral, and contributes to a related conversation about "haunting" in Asian American poetics, which is also what her digital dissertation is about, which we'll get to in a second.
If you haven't read much poetry at all, you can enjoy the pleasure of letting Wong's precise and gritty-gorgeous images pass over you one by one like the most intense screen saver you've ever seen. Take this stanza from "And the Place Was Matter:"
and the branches shook the lights out
and the fish to be sold had their heads intact
and the highway expanded into four lanes
and the garlic blossomed in June
and this should not trouble us
Humanitarians who only love poetry for its sounds and rhythms can find a lot of pleasure in the four-beat pulse of those lines, but reading closer you can tell that here and in other poems Wong is obsessed with pairing city images with rural images to show that those two realms are not separate but rather in constant conversation with one another. As Wong says, this shouldn't trouble us, but it does. We want to escape the city for the country and vice versa. And yet, that's impossible. In the country the mountains look like a skyline and in the city the skyline looks like mountains.
The speaker in these poems is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the beauty of nature, and she's always reminding herself of the pastoral as a self-serving and potentially empty construction. "Returning to nature is a luxury we keep, like this / floral soap I can't bear to clean my filthy face with. / To leave the village, to return to the village in / a better dress," she writes in "Pastoral Power." Earlier on in the poem, she sends up a loafing Walt Whitman and a romantic William Carlos Williams in 1.5 lines: "Each blade of grass presses upon me as I rest too / long, spring and none." And later in the poem, she writes the anthem of 21st century MFA grads: "I might die paying off my loans if they don't / begin accepting dandelions."
Toward the end of the book, she's no longer awash in the urban/rural dialectic. She finds a language that allows her to harness nature's largesse and sublimity. In "Guts," she consumes a whale "one bite at a time" and uses sunny, pastoral honey to summon an army of ants to do her bidding.
To the extent that the book describes a narrative at all, it's one of a woman's rise to power as she comes to terms with her ghosts, many of whom seem to live in the landscape. Early on she "wobbles" around, phantomlike, her eyes "shining with mold." The sun, raccoons, fungi, garbage, ants, and family members in Jersey and China haunt her, sort of like specters but more like just ideas/figures that never leave your mind.
Wong's digital dissertation is a kind of extension of this "haunting" and of her poetics in general. Unlike a digitized monograph or a digital data dump of highly arcane material, or any of the other wonky genres that typify digital humanities projects, Wong's Poetics of Haunting is a simple, gorgeous, public website that you can explore at your leisure.
On the landing page, Wong defines her terms: "A poetics of haunting insists on invocation: a deliberate, powerful, and provocative move toward haunted places. How does history—particularly the history of war, colonialism, and marginalization—impact the work of Asian American poets across time and space? How does language act as a haunting space of intervention and activism?"
Wong spoke with a diverse group of contemporary Asian American writers about these questions, and she arranges their creative responses on the site. There are videos, recorded interviews, striking visual art, and stellar poems from Sally Wen Mao, Monica Sok, and Diana Khoi Nguyen.
Local poet Don Mee Choi offers a somber but stirring poem called "Do You Remember?" as well as a moving recording of a song composed in honor of Korean labor activists. UW professor of creative writing Pimone Triplett adds a poem and a recorded interview with Wong about "hungry ghosts," insatiable entities in the Buddhist tradition that helped shape a manuscript she's working on.
Wong also includes a ghostly, poetic conversation she had/still has with the late, great, and groundbreaking writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha while researching at the Berkeley Art Museum. The dead are very much alive in Wong's work, and she has a lot to say to them. It's more than worth your time to listen.