Poet Of The Week

Wo Chan

     May 25–31, 2015

Wo Chan is a queer Fujianese immigrant living in Brooklyn. A recipient of fellowships from the Asian American Writers Workshop, Poets House, Kundiman and Lambda Literary, Wo has work published or forthcoming in the Margins, cream city review, Cortland Review and VYM Magazine. Wo is also a member of the Brooklyn-based drag alliance Switch n’ Play and has performed at venues including Brooklyn Pride, Princeton, the Trevor Project and the Architectural Digest Expo.

Author photo by Cameron Blaylock

Glasses

 
The overly passionate
optometrist

exclaims they’re way
too big

for you though
I say

I have a heart-
shaped face.

She sits me
into her

spaceship chair
and pumps

so that I rise
to face

the lamp-lit mirror. She goes
I know

they’re in vogue
right now

but they do you, really
no favors,

hides your face
entirely

and you’ve really got
quite a face.

I smile.
She’d have me look like

an accountant
if she could, fit me a titanium

pair, compact
and intelligent

winking
like the hood of a car.

What do you see?
she asks,

turning from me, without squinting
or straining

tell me the best you can
what you see.

I recite the alphabet train,
suspenseful

in its meaninglessness,
while she nods

and flips through lenses,
berates my right eye’s astigmatism.

She slides my old glasses
back onto face.

My frames are plastic and clunky,
bought

without thought for class or material
dignity.

Surprising though
how gingerly she handles them,

slipping the legs
over my monkey ears,

the lenses newly wiped clean,
and she is sixty

now, clear,
with hands that have touched

the many
near blind.

She leans in
and asks

now what
does a young man

like you
study?
Her expression,

lines
more worry than laugh,

run every direction
of the rose,

onto her neck
(that her body lives expressively)

and across her cheeks,
somehow ample

and yet completely
uncontained

by her tiny,
golden frames.

How can a young man
like me

not fall in love with her
in this dim-lit room?

This time, not even my glasses
can hold my heart in place.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem as a part of an assignment for a workshop in self-portraiture. We were supposed to write “Portrait of the Artist in Four Objects” but I got carried away with writing about my glasses (because they’re so huge!).

I was interested in the unnamed space that two people can hold, and the way that space narrows and breaches as it encounters unexpected intimacy. I think poems work as instruments of surprise, and this poem teases out shared closeness that is neither sexual nor familial, but paradoxically something mundane and ceremonial. Ceremonial for the speaker because—well, let’s face it—that optometrist chair is pretty Game of Thrones, and mundane for her because she has touched thousands of young faces and prescribed thousands of lenses throughout her career.

Interestingly enough, I feel that the speaker and the optometrist have a strange and stubborn connection through aesthetic values, which leads them to grapple in this confined space of moment-making. The poet writing what they can observe through ears, eyes, and touch, and her, the optometrist, sharpening and resharpening that very same observable world. There is much celebration and mundanity in it, though who’s to say which character is experiencing which?

I think there is a certain ecstasy of experience that poetry as a medium manages to capture succinctly and intact. In this case, I am delighted in how easily identity and space buckle once observed and written upon.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a long poem project that works off the conceit of the Food Network television show Chopped. It’s still embryonic, but I am very excited about how it works on a narrative, personal-historical level. It draws a lot on my childhood and adolescence in my parent’s Chinese restaurant juxtaposed with my current life working in a literary nonprofit. And of course, there is the actual fantasy of being on Chopped which I’m sure all of us watching the show have had. I can’t speak too much on it, as talking about my unwritten writing generally dooms it to stay unwritten, but the piece has an interest in disarticulating digestible narratives, a sort of grasping for reality through unreality …

What’s a good day for you?

I think a good day should always have a birthday party. Within a birthday party are elements of many good days: eating with friends, fluffy cake, large and small conversations, dramatic toasts, and compulsory group singing. It is also a good day if I wander into a dog park, make a new interesting friend, or manage not to check my phone for 8+ hours. On a good day, I don’t care to make a single dollar, don’t care if my hair is unwashed, and don’t care if I wobble and walk funny.

If I manage to write a new poem or read a poem that sticks with me for years to come, then that is also a good day—with or without the aforementioned birthday party.

As a sidenote, I also have yet to win the lottery.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I have lived in Brooklyn for two years exactly. Right now, I live at the edge of Carroll Gardens, between Red Hook and Gowanus. I like the neighborhood enough, though it’s a little overrun by children. I live above a daycare, where toddlers in the courtyard will belt out their newly-learned nursery rhymes like war songs. It’s one way to wake up on weekends.

The neighborhood itself is a little expensive and unreal. Almost toy-townish. And I mean this in a literal sense, where on Court Street you can find four toy stores within two blocks of each other. The subway is really close, though.

The first neighborhood I lived in was Bed-Stuy, but I had to leave when my landlord decided to renovate and kick us out. I have a lot of feelings for Bed-Stuy, as it was sort of the first place I ever lived that wasn’t overwhelmingly white. In fact, Bed-Stuy is rich in black history, and to be an observer in that was not just humbling, but helped me align myself on the map politically. It’s a much longer story, but overall, I miss it a lot.

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

I find this question thorny. Being a transplant, I resist defining Brooklyn for others who may have lived there their entire lives with their families and neighborhoods, who face continuing gentrification brought on by people similar to myself. It strikes me as analogous to when my own friends go to China and start telling me all about the “weird things” they saw, when currently I am unable to leave the United States to visit the country where my parents and I were born.

Though if I were to answer: I wouldn’t say “defining,” but some of the most amazing evenings I’ve spent in Brooklyn have been in certain salons generously held in living rooms across many neighborhoods. Salons like JP Howard’s Women Writers in Bloom, the Brooklyn Ladies Text-Based Salon, and Yellow and Brown Power Hour. These gatherings feed my heart, mind and body.

Relatedly, a funny experience I had in Brooklyn was when I was walking down the street next to this teenage guy, probably a highschooler, and suddenly this flock of pigeons exploded from the sidewalk in front of us, flapping into the air. One flew into our faces where we both dodged dramatically and then looked at each other. After some silence he said, “We should have fucked that pigeon up,” and I said, “Yeah, we should have.”

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Amber Atiya and Lara Lorenzo. Because they are both alive and alive.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

One redeeming quality of Court Street is this unbelievable bookstore called The Community Bookstore, which is better in theory than practice. It’s a store run by one man who keeps his own hours so it’s usually open until 4 PM. He usually just stands up front smoking and knows every book he has, which is quite a feat because the walls and aisles of the entire store are made of books. Floor-to-ceiling books. Fiction, nonfiction, art books, manuals, poetry, children’s books, romance, crime, mystery, self-help, entrepreneurship, cooking—it goes forever, which I think is the dream of bookstores. I love the idea of this store more than its reality, though it would break my heart if it were to close, because it was the reality that helped me realize the fantasy in the first place.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Honestly, much of my reading is stolen in between moments, which is to say I read mostly on the train. Does the F train count as a favorite place to read? What about the A train? Actually, the G train is my favorite place to read, especially if I am going into Queens from Brooklyn. It is a long, quiet and spacious ride, usually undisturbed on weekdays and afternoons.

I write exclusively from my bed. My bed says hello.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

If I’m not reading or writing, I’m generally eating, which puts me squarely in a seat at Hanco’s chomping on bahn mi and chugging bubble tea. I love spending time in my friends’ apartments as well (addresses undisclosed).

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

The last awesome book I read was Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. The way that she bends every narrative thread—genre, reality, time—is very breathtaking and inspiring at once. (The book makes me communicate in oxymorons.)

The last poem I read today was José Garcia Villa’s “The Anchored Angel.” I read it aloud on the F train and still can’t get the feeling of it out of my mouth!

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate __________,
And what I ________ you ___________ ,
For every __________ me as good __________ you.

I celebrate my non-white literary ancestors,
And what I read all resembles me. You ___________ .
For every poem I love embodies me as good. __________ you.

Why Brooklyn?

I don’t know if Brooklyn needs me to justify its lives and communities, but if it will have me, then I am happy to count my creative neighbors and contemporaries among my blessings.