Poet Of The Week

Sally Wen Mao

     June 3–9, 2019

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019) and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, the New York Public Library Cullman Center and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, among other awards, Mao holds an MFA from Cornell University. On Thursday, June 13, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 61 Local in Cobble Hill with Derek Mong and Ladan Osman.

Anna May Wong Dreams of Wong Kar-Wai

I know what it is to pretend to be safe

in my fulvous skin. So much pretending

can bring a girl to her knees.

But in Wong Kar-Wai’s world, no one

needs to pretend. The mise-en-scene

of Fallen Angels: Hong Kong trance,

butcher’s storefronts, stolen ice cream

trucks. Or 2046: the train of lush cyborgs

going forever nowhere. In the Singapore

hotel room, Tony Leung writes his alien

love stories. Across the world, Happy Together:

Leslie Cheung empties his apartment

in Buenos Aires. Sets for the beautiful

and lonely. In Chungking Express, I watch

Faye Wong smoke cigarettes between takes

in cropped cut, oversized button-down, grosgrain

shorts. She doesn’t leave her tape deck alone,

but complains she is sick of that track,

“California Dreamin’.” The song makes

me homesick, nostalgic even, and I know

this is absurd because it came out in 1965,

after I die. Whatever John Phillips meant

by feeling safe in L.A., I can relate.

Sometimes I pretend so much I believe

myself. On the set, I try on the yellow wig

and trenchcoat that Bridgette Lin wore

smuggling cocaine in the first act.

The plot has a hole: why does Bridgette wear

a blonde wig, if she didn’t want to arouse

suspicion? I have played many criminals,

but no one like her, who fell asleep

in a hotel room with the police officer

gazing at her, in love. If I played her role,

I imagine walking through Causeway Bay

in 1929, my cigarette lighting my way,

the most conspicuous woman in the world.

But the role I’d rather play is Faye’s:

tomboy who breaks into her true love’s

apartment to add goldfish to his fishtank.

Or Agent, in Fallen Angels, who sets up crime

scenes and goes to her assassin’s room

to touch herself. Or Maggie Cheung’s role

in Days of Being Wild: she asks the traitor

in her bed, does the empty night fertilize

this barren soil? She is ruddy in pale light,

limp with the pain of wakefulness. Far away,

the palm trees flare over wet boughs. Home

is in Macau. The rain readies her for her dim

walk home. I’ve never cared for love stories.

I praise a story of heartbreak. I praise

how beauty looks during a blackout.

—From Oculus, Graywolf Press, 2019.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

As a college student, I used to watch Wong Kar-Wai films in the basement of the campus library, pop in the videotapes one at a time and watch three or four in one sitting. I loved these films so much I would emerge from the basement and walk back to my dormitory feeling like the Pittsburgh atmosphere was entirely different—more alive somehow. I would imagine myself going to Hong Kong and getting swallowed by all the lights. The people in these films were not afraid to be weird, strange and heartbroken. Maggie Cheung in Days of Being Wild—I loved her performance in that film, how she embodied this kind of particularly female pain. My favorites were Fallen Angels and Chungking Express, which used to be the same project. They featured characters who were broken but still longing, still hopeful in some ways. “Anna May Wong Dreams of Wong Kar-Wai” arises out of the Anna May Wong project at the center of Oculus, where the Golden Age Hollywood actress has a time machine. In this poem, I wanted to pay homage to these movies and break the pattern—many of the other films Anna May Wong observes with her time machine are American Hollywood films that fail to imagine Asians and Asian Americans effectively. Here, I offer her some relief—the chance to see herself and identify with some of the Asian characters, a chance to see the more exciting and exhilarating directions that film can take.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on new poems, lyric essays and short stories. Currently I am working on stories that explore the trope of a fox woman and fox spirits, immortalized in Chinese lore and literature (liaozhai) by Pu Songling. In terms of poetry, I’ve been working on poems that are more personal/autobiographical to me, which is scary because it’s taken two full-length books for me to arrive at this point. I’m interested in expanding my practice—not just to prose, but to performance and film and visual arts. I’m working on pushing aside arbitrary boundaries on what kind of genres an artist is supposed to fall within—I instinctively choose to fall outside of boundaries.

So you used to live in Brooklyn. Tell us about your neighborhood. How long did you live there? What do you like about it? How does it compare to where you live now?

I’ve lived in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Bed-Stuy, Bushwick and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. I was in and out of New York for several years of my life—whenever I did a residency out of the country, I’d come back to New York. Lefferts Gardens was my most recent home there, and I loved it—I loved stumbling across wonderful establishments owned by people of color and finding neighborhood businesses to support. I loved being able to walk to Prospect Park in the early mornings and watch the swans glide across the water. I loved looking out my fire escape and letting the breeze hug my plants.

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

I feel like a lot of my twenties were spent on a Brooklyn street listening to Rihanna and spontaneously dancing and crying at the same time.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that in Brooklyn? Why or why not?

A poetry community is reading poems, dancing, crying, listening to Rihanna, eating, and imagining a better world and a better future together. A poetry community is a source of support, regeneration, and it is a collaborative vision for justice. And yes I found this in Brooklyn! But I want to keep finding it again and again!

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

Cathy Linh Che, Tracy K. Smith, Monica Youn, R.A. Villanueva, Hossannah Asuncion, Angel Nafis, Wendy Xu and wow, so, so many more.

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

My poetry mentors are Terrance Hayes, Alice Fulton and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, who were my advisors for my undergraduate and graduate studies. They have all informed my poetics immensely and worked with me closely on my first book, Mad Honey Symposium, over the course of years. Also, I attended my first Kundiman retreat in 2008, when the faculty was Bei Dao, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Tan Lin. These three (very different) poets all influenced me greatly: Bei Dao told me to travel far and wide, Aimee Nezhukumatathil encouraged me to embrace my fairy/whimsical self, and Tan Lin taught me not to be afraid of my own weirdness.

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

I recently read Sula by Toni Morrison, and absolutely savored it. Female pain, terror, and friendship between women have always interested me in literature, especially when crafted so meticulously and masterfully.

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

I’ve been meaning to read Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City for years. She’s one of the most important writers in old Shanghai, and so I’ll get to it, I swear!

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 definitely dip in and out of multiple books. Sometimes I plan out my reading and sometimes plans don’t work and I’m spontaneously reading whatever I happen to pick up. I love physical books, but traveling all the time, I often can’t afford all the space that physical books take up, so having a digital text reader is important. I also read a lot of PDFs for research, so that Kindle is a godsend.

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

I would love to write a hybrid poem that incorporates text and images. I love how Claudia Rankine, Jennifer S. Cheng and Diana Khoi Nguyen all practice this so perfectly. I’d also love to perform my poems in a way that falls outside my comfort zone.

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

The New York Public Library 42nd St building. It has the Rose Reading Room upstairs, and the Map Division downstairs. I love that place, it is as close to a holy space as is possible for a person like me with no religion. And also cafés, bookstore-cafés. I like reading at the park when it’s warm outside.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Brooklyn—the brownstone stoops, the dog days of summer, Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum, the bookstores and stationery shops, the thrift shops, the farmers markets, the rooftops, Borough Park where you can get a cheap haircut and shop for ginseng, fresh fish, and herbs. The air of Brooklyn carries a sort of magic that just doesn’t exist in many other places. Honestly there isn’t a corner of Brooklyn that I don’t love—it’s so close to my vision of how home can look, even for a person as mobile as me.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s the closest approximation of home. Every fire escape singing under the full moon.