One More Thing, Recent

One More Thing: Shelley Wong and Lisa Low in Conversation

One More Thing is a series curated by Senior Editor Helene Achanzar featuring Poetry Northwest contributors and other writers in conversation. This installment features a conversation between contributors Shelley Wong, the author of As She Appears (YesYes Books, 2022), which was longlisted for the National Book Award and was the winner of a Lambda Literary Award, and Lisa Low, author of the chapbook Crown for the Girl Inside (YesYes Books, 2023), winner of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest.

Lisa Low: Hi Shelley! It was so wonderful getting to spend time with your beautiful, incisive collection. I was really struck by how lush the landscapes and the poems as spaces themselves were, even as harsher revelations were considered or dissected. And all of this in the context of the “nature poem” trope, which is so successfully subverted throughout. Can you talk more about the role of seasons, places, and landscape in this collection, and how you came to use them the way you did? I’m thinking of the way seasons are one of the collection’s organizing principles and the opening poem, “For the Living in the New World,” which invites us to think about invention and reinvention, but there are so many other examples in the collection!

Shelley Wong: Thank you for this question, which is sending me in so many directions in the best way. Finding the organization for the book was a challenge since there are several mini series written over a decade. Using seasons to mark the sections made sense, but within each season there are poems that were written out of that season. Partly as a nod to my love for Sylvia Plath, who intended her final Ariel collection to end with “spring” as its final word, I decided to have spring and its anticipation as the opening and closing moves of the book, to lead into renewal and reinvention, as you say. Then the pandemic hit, and Poetry Northwest editor Keetje Kuipers solicited me for a prose postcard which ended up being “Pandemic Spring,” and I wanted to acknowledge that time at the end of the book as another layer and transition. 

For the seasonal fashion forecast poems, I saw the models as quiet women on and off the runway, sisters to my poem speakers. Fall and spring are times of transit while summer and winter are for resting and hibernation. As I wrote other poems, landscapes began to appear as markers of a life journey, a retreat, a fairy tale, dreamlike space. Then I started threading more present threats relating to the climate crisis, which is a dire emergency especially in California, as we cycle through extreme drought and devastating fire seasons. 

Another path: I was drafting these poems in the aftermath of a long-term relationship which had its joys as well as its more painful moments. Sometimes you feel like you’re living in a loop—it’s difficult to know the self and feel connected to the world. It helps to walk among the redwoods and fill your lungs with ocean air. 

Perhaps the reinvention aspect is, on a macro-scale, trying to imagine a future, the unpredictable seasons, and on a quieter level, find spaces for solace when we feel under threat or need a place to restore. I wrote these poems for women of color speakers to enter the landscape for healing, imagining, and just being. The book is dedicated to the quiet sisters and I hope it offers a space where we can find each other and connect in a sisterhood.

LL: I love the way you describe fall and spring as “times of transit while summer and winter are for resting and hibernation,” and I love the way these associations make themselves present across the phases of the collection and through other threads that also echo seasonal weather, like the long-term relationship. I also find the book’s dedication really moving and powerful—“to the quiet sisters.” Switching gears a bit, I spent a lot of time admiring the endings of your poems and the way they differently balance image, imagination, statement, breath, and more:

“I felt the cold / weight in my hand // as I approached / softness with shears” in the “The Summer Forecast”

“I imagine a deer stepping out of the ocean / as water returns to me, rushing over my hands” in “Walking Across Fire Island” 

“I had to invent her. / I’m inventing her” in “My Therapist Asks If I Would be Happier If Were Straight” 

“There is a look / to every exchange, a kind of weather” in “The Allergy Test” 

Could you say a bit about how you arrive at your endings, or what you want them to do? How about the opposite—your titles or opening lines?

SW: I appreciate this question so much, to help me see my own patterns. I became more aware of them when I was organizing the collection. At times, I trimmed back, as was the case with “The Allergy Test.” The original ending led into various exchanges—I felt the poem was stronger with the “tell” rather than the “tell and show.” Perhaps some prefer the “show,” the “end on an image but don’t explain it,” but sometimes an articulation hits harder. It is empowering for a queer Asian American woman to talk about tensions in being perceived, to not leave that unsaid in a poem where an Asian woman speaker is visiting a white doctor to be healed. 

Other poems were part of the Forecast and Fire Island series and were easier to write because they were in conversation. I could look at the other poems and play with ways in which the poems ended with different moves—very important to look at all of my water endings—as in actions or feelings, in connection, transition, or stillness. In a book that explores intimacy, many endings are an approach or a waiting or a wondering. Or with breath and music! I tend to add a little softness, alliteration, assonance or consonance in the last line, a kind of echoey fade-out. Tonally, in this book, I was interested in ambivalence, in quiet moments of contradiction.

Swerving away from that, I love titles! It stems from my love of magazines growing up and the succinct wordplay of fashion-speak. Sometimes I want the title to set the context like “My Therapist Asks If I Would Be Happier If I Were Straight” or change the understanding of the phrase like “Private Collection.” Other times, the title sets up a different expectation than the poem, as with “Pursuit.” They say that a book collection’s table of contents is the final poem, and I feel pleased with how mine turned out, considering I wrote the poems over a decade.

I tend to keep my beginning lines and instead rework the syntax or language. Since I’m a slow and infrequent writer, that first line is usually key as to why I am coming to the page and breaking the silence. But I did concede to trimming some opening lines per the suggestion of my editor to enter a poem faster. The opening lines have an intimate address, as I was writing the book for the quiet sisters and my younger self. I sought to speak carefully and gently. As I edited the book, sometimes I added little intertextual moments, like the sunset runway at the beginning of “To Yellow” to hint at “The Fall Forecast” to come, or sI huffled the poem order to make surprising moves from one poem’s ending to the next poem’s beginning.

And in that way, I see the book’s craft as in conversation with the remix, jump-cuts, collaging, dance, associative leaps, kaleidoscopes—reconsidering and reframing—to draw attention to the speaker as a maker, creating a new world apart from the relationship, to be present, and not dissociate.

LL:  On another note, I saw in an interview that you mentioned being 4th generation Chinese American. I’m 4th generation on my dad’s side. Besides my cousins I haven’t met anyone else whose family came that early to the US! So cool. 

It was so insightful to hear your perspective on endings and titles and beginnings, and it makes me want to think about my own endings/beginnings through your take on them. I also really connected with what you said about mixing it up between endings that “show” vs “tell,” and how direct articulation can be important because of subject position. Is articulation something you’ve leaned into for awhile as an option, and/or was it something you had to challenge in terms of others’ perceptions of what a poem should be like? Are there other poetic strategies that operate similarly for you? Relatedly, I find the idea of empowerment to be a really important yet tricky one—that can make space for writers that traditionally haven’t had platforms, but also can be a limiting blanket statement when used by audiences from dominant population groups. How do you navigate writing, thinking, or talking about empowerment? 

SW: I’m so happy to be in conversation with a fellow fourth-gen Chinese American poet! Claire Hong, Todd Kaneko, Brynn Saito, and Mia Ayumi Malhotra are other fourth-gen Asian American poets I’ve met over the years. It’s amazing when we find each other, and I wonder about our ancestors’ shared history.

Your questions go to the heart of what I think about often—empowerment in its relationship to silence and quiet as an Asian American queer woman. It’s central to my collection and embedded in the title. The negotiation between legibility and privacy in my poetry as well as in my promotional journey is a related thought. There are some moments in the poems where I wanted to protect the speaker and the reader, to give the speaker privacy and to lay the path for a gentler reading journey. “Does this mean that the work lacks risk?” is a workshop-type voice I hear in my head. I answer, there are quiet forms of revelation. We are at risk, how much must we risk—to be seen—as artists? By whom? To hold layers of love and uncertainty while moving in a violent, hostile world, it is enough in life and in the craft.

Thinking of the “we” is another consideration. Is it unethical, arrogant, to speak for the we? As someone who has felt lonely as a fourth-generation Chinese American, I write in the we to believe in a collective us and for the fourth generation that does not exist in its full capacity due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Page Act, Angel Island. I write not to flatten or speak for a collective, but to believe in a we, that we are not alone—that we are together in love and understanding in all of our human complexity.

The contending of “show” and “tell” weaves through the collection, in the ways the fourth wall is broken, time/place collapsed and fragmented, in the accumulation of years in single seasons. Jack Gilbert and Sharon Olds are my biggest influences in this layering of image, memory, admission, and declaration. There is transformative power in an unvarnished truth, especially coming from a woman of color. I also think telling can signal a shift in thinking at the end of a lyrical meditation, a way to enact how our imagination leads us into revelation, the subconscious manifesting into language. 

There have been a few times I had to push back against those who questioned the declarative moments. As a quiet person, I use writing to be understood, but how that manifests in a poem is a different sort of consideration. Sometimes I have edited away an ending that says what is implied, but other times I have wanted a specific declaration, which is often an empowering one. I came of undergrad age in the late 90s and early 2000s when there seemed to be a lack of declarative telling in poetry. Poetry was like a private language for white academics and I found it bloodless. I am glad I found another poetry community a decade later.

LL: I really resonated with what you said about legibility/privacy, and you reminded me about how I have my own baggage with the descriptor “quiet.” But it also made me think about how quiet can be much more complex and expansive especially with all the contexts you mentioned. And what you said about the transformative power in an unvarnished truth—that statement itself is so powerful and something I want to keep thinking about! 

The fourth wall is something I’ve been contemplating a lot in my own work, and I love when it happens in TV shows, movies, and stand-up too. Could you talk more about how you conceive of the fourth wall in this collection or generally?

I also loved when you talked about the nuances of “we” as a collective, and I’m reminded of the collective of the reading public, once a book is out in the world. I’m curious about how your relationship to As She Appears as it made its way from private to public/manuscript to published book and if that relationship has changed or not? I’m thinking of whether you think of your poems differently, but also about the context of a book tour or readings as you mentioned the book’s promotional journey, having a wider/more public readership, and anything else you think of! 

SW: Thank you for your articulation—yes, an unvarnished truth!

I see breaking the fourth call as calling out the frame, an acknowledgement of the writer as a creator and the reader’s presence, and expanding art to include the queer Asian American woman—and the quiet ones! It’s a sort of intimacy: the book references Frida Kahlo, who broke walls—room with no ceiling, the painted blood leaking onto the frame of the painting—and the immersive theater production Then She Fell referenced in my poem “White Rabbit,” an Alice in Wonderland staging where the audience becomes a participant (like Alice herself, and seen more popularly in Sleep No More, an immersive theater production based on a 1920s take on Macbeth)—and the audience walking around the performance art of Maria Abramović (or facing her), referenced in my poem “Invitation With Three Colors.”

It’s also another way to enact as she appears—as she appears so that she may speak, be a presence, to add another dimension. In writing the poems and envisioning the book, I wrote to create the poems I wanted to see in the world and so I am always interrupting the scenes, changing the points of view – the you, we, the I. To speak outside of the construction of the images, like in “Private Collection,” to say how images where we do and do not appear affect us. I’m also conscious of the frame of looking back, the construction and unknowingness of memory, of speaking to someone, a reader, when alone. The reader you as a substitute for the lover you. Perhaps it’s to make sure I’m being understood, to add commentary on what is missing, distorted, lost, to make the absence a presence. And also to add funny asides, I see humor as a sort of breaking of the fourth wall.

In thinking about my own relationship to the book as I enter a more public life, I am thankful that people have been respectful of my privacy and not probed too deeply about my personal relationship to the book’s narrative. But consequently I have felt that I wanted to be more candid about the complexities and joys of young queer women of color because it is not something often presented in literature. It feels like another coming out! It feels relieving to have a book out there and to still love the poems and feel close to them and that they still make me laugh and I know their breathing so well. I often read the poems about dancing it out because I want to represent queer femme joy and no reviews have touched on the dancing theme as a way to healing and collective happiness. In many ways, how someone reads the book is about how queer Asian American women—and their separate identities, and multi-gen Asian Americans—appear to that reader.  

LL: I’m really excited thinking about the work you’re doing to acknowledge the form and the frame, the constraints but also the possibilities, and how much that matters in terms of perspective. I feel like I’m getting to celebrate not only your book as a concrete thing but also its impact on the larger conversation on the complexities of presence, representation, appearance, and image, in poetry but also in the flawed ways we connect with each other. 

I loved hearing about your changing relationship with the book post-publication and the dancing poems! As a kind of closing question, is there anything that has been surprising about this whole process: writing, submitting, editing, publishing, and promoting? 

SW: Thank you for your thoughtfulness and insights to bring me closer to my book and its visions over the course of this conversation! 

What has surprised me on this journey: how much time, organization, and labor it takes to bring a book into the world. How much of the promotional burden falls on poets when publishing with a  small press. The small number of people of color reviewers and the decline of book coverage across media platforms.

I’m deeply thankful to the editors, event organizers, and poets who have supported me on my promotional journey and are part of my precious community. I send my heartfelt gratitude to those who have spent time with my book, shared it, taught it, and sent me kind words. I have done over 50 events in a year and I still love the book and the poems! They make me laugh, unnerve me and move me. I am so proud of how the book turned out and how hard I worked over the past decade, persisting and believing in the work.

I am still processing the National Book Awards recognition as a real thing that happened to me. I am honored to be part of an NBA longlist debut cohort of three women of color who work outside of academia. I recognize that I am among the first Asian American poetry debuts to be recognized by the NBA, but Asian American poets have been writing for a very long time without receiving such recognition, and this honor would not be possible without them. 

I am happy that I celebrated the book with many friends and heroes, and I am eager to read and write new poems. The As She Appears poems that resonate the most with audiences are the ones about Asian American queer joy and I hold that joy close to me and will call on it when I write again.

Shelley Wong is the author of As She Appears (YesYes Books, 2022), longlisted for the National Book Award and winner of a Lambda Literary Award. She has been awarded fellowships and support from Kundiman, MacDowell, Hedgebrook, Headlands Center for the Arts, and Montalvo Arts Center. Her recent poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, and The New Republic. She lives in San Francisco.

Lisa Low is the author of the chapbook Crown for the Girl Inside (YesYes Books, 2023), winner of the 2020 Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest. She is the recipient of a 2023 Pushcart Prize and the 2020 Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, and her poems have appeared in Copper Nickel, Ecotone, The Massachusetts Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.