Poet Of The Week

Stella Wong

     August 13–19, 2018

Stella Wong grew up in New York City. She earned an English degree at Harvard and recently completed her MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where her thesis collection focused on the intersections of race, gender and history. Her work has been published in Narrative and on the Academy of American Poets website. A former intern at Harvard University Press, Wong has also been a fiction reader for the Iowa Review and a juror for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Oregon 1945

Imagine in this earth’s atmosphere,
a bag filled with air travels slowly in
the wind. On a jet stream, unearthly, air
can travel at hundreds of miles per hour.
Air can carry air very well.
Air can carry a bag filled with air,
a paper bag filled with not only air
that doesn’t tear, a paper bomb filled with tears
and mass panic. Just as well
as a skin bag filled with air and manic
sound and fury. If the bag slips below
the jet stream, into the earth’s sphere,
a pin releases and
a smaller bag of sand is tossed off.
The bag rises, rises back into a place where
air carries air. The paper bags are made
with fury and care, paper fibers starched
with fury and parched by hand and patched—
with the handwritten pieces of letters—the holes where
the jet stream could announce itself,
like a stranger in a home,
like a bomb on a house.
Imagine several thousand paper bombs swimming
like minnows through air, high above a sea that separates
us from Japan, lands flung awry on
an open earth, where paper airplanes unload
pearls and paper bombs are sent to hurl
the fury that should have made it to
the papers, panic for
a protected people. Instead, because
America is a land of fields,
most of these hand-repaired paper
bombs land in fields or streams
and one in a forest where
a teacher on a field trip lets her caution go
to the wind, and picks paper with care
for the students to share.
And the sound unfurls
through the open earth, tearing a hole in
the normal order. The papers never report
the news, because air can carry panic
very well. Air can carry papers
very well. Air can carry air
very well. Imagine now: six souls, unbanded,
rise, rise up and travel in the wind.

—Originally published in Narrative, April 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I took an Eastern papermaking class with Professor Tim Barrett, director of the Iowa Center for the Book, and was inspired by his lesson on the ways in which the old, traditional art form of handmade paper was weaponized for war, especially in counterpoint to the many scientific advances of the day. My grandfather was an American veteran who had fought in World War II so it was an interesting take, hearing about warfare on this continent.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a collection of poems focused on my experience of being an Asian American woman and related themes: identity, family, history, religion, memory. Taking aim at a lot of sacred cows. I like considering the musicality of words, and having to learn English as a second language contributed to my fascination with wordplay.

What’s a good day for you?

I like walking the Brooklyn Bridge in the mornings, eating dim sum with my family on the weekends, and listening to classical music concerts in the evenings at Lincoln Center. I’m a big fan of sweets from Lady M bakery and MarieBelle.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I grew up in Manhattan; we lived in Little Italy while I went to elementary at Special Music School at Lincoln Center and Hunter College High School. We moved to Downtown Brooklyn around the time I started attending Harvard. We lived in a building called Toren—it looks like a stack of Legos and was a LEED certified building, so it was very green.

Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

Downtown Brooklyn is developing; at the time we lived there, the grocery store was still under construction. There were mostly businesses in the area, banks and such. I would take the subway to Manhattan in the daytime for an internship at IMG Artists, which was at that point located in Carnegie Hall Tower, and in the evening I would take accounting, economics and statistics classes from the Harvard Business School online learning platform. So I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the neighborhood, but my mom would bring me to listen to concerts at the Bargemusic series on a ship at the Fulton Ferry Landing. It makes you a little seasick the first few times but you forget about it when the music begins. I remember concerts there by Jeffrey Swann, who has the best spoken introductions memorized by heart—super well-researched and funny and well-rounded stories to give you a flavor of the pieces he’d play. We would have ice cream cones from the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory next door at intermission. I would bring my friends here because I liked it so much, or if we couldn’t afford it I would point it out from the heights of the Brooklyn Bridge. Currently, I come back to the area most often to work out at Gleason’s in DUMBO. It’s hot like a sweat lodge and brutal in the best way. Everyone is like a family, really encouraging.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

Eight years ago I played with the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights. It was an unnerving experience to have practiced all those years as a soloist and suddenly to be in a rehearsal space with fifty other performers waiting to start again every time you make a mistake! Churches are also incredible spaces but the sound echoes differently because the ceilings are arched, so when you perform on a piano, the sound won’t come back. It’s eerie.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

In terms of a poetry community, the MFA world is probably the most institutionally well connected, but the people I’ve connected with personally have been those in completely different poetry communities willing to take a chance on me. For example, I found an amazing poetry community in LA among University of Southern California PhD students: Muriel Leung, Brian Lin and Callie Siskel, in particular. In Chicago at the Poetry Incubator led by Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall, I found such welcoming reception among this community of slam poets who have day jobs as political activists and elementary school teachers; my cohort provided exceptional examples of how poetry is not only important, but also deeply necessary for the kind of empathy that our society needs, especially today.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Brenda Shaughnessy for her incisive perspective on motherhood; also Wo Chan, and Cathy Park Hong for her otherworldly poetry. Ariana Reines’s most confessional of confessionals was like reading someone else’s diary, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Josh Bell changed my life. He taught the first workshop I was a part of and normalized every step of the poetic process such that I was never at any point scared of my own mind or the ways in which I processed external stimuli. Jorie Graham was my thesis advisor at Harvard, and she encouraged me to embrace my upbringing as a pianist; to trust that my ear for music would work equally well for words. D. A. Powell gave me the most hands-off guidance, which gave me the freedom to write in whichever direction I wanted. Chen Chen taught me how to write pain into celebration.

Sam Chang is a brilliant fiction writer. I never had the honor of taking her class, but at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop she was my north star.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Terrance Hayes’s Wind in a Box, for its interweaving of wordplay, musicality and history. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, for its narrative charge and lyrical beauty. Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, for its humor and imagery.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I still need to get in touch with some Tang Dynasty poets.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I draw word diagrams on pages to trace rhymes: end, half, internal, eye.

I used to draw directly with different markers on music scores of Bach preludes and fugues so I could trace the evolution of the theme, like reflections of a curve over an x-axis or y-axis, or the origin.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’ve never written an erasure poem or a poem made through machine intelligence. One of my lecturers used to hypothesize about solar flares reaching Earth and rendering all our electronics defunct; I’d like to think the day after that my poetry would still look the same.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

McNally Jackson bookstore and the New York Public Library—nothing beats the smell of books, the whispers and the high ceilings.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Gleason’s: I go twice a week, and it’s cathartic for me to get a lot of emotions out. Berl’s is a special spot for poets.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate paleteros,
And what I drip you sculpt,
For every meltdown in me as good honest sweet, was crystallized
     for me by

Why Brooklyn?

Why America?