An Interview with Sally Wen Mao
By Yohanca Delgado
I had the privilege of chatting with poet Sally Wen Mao ahead of her PEN/Faulkner and Hill Center event this Thursday.We talked about her experience living in DC as the current Jenny McKean Writer in Washington at GW and about what’s fueling her poetry in 2018.
You’ve said that obsession drives your poetry. What are the obsessions driving and shaping your current work?
2017 is in many ways, this year of global “reckoning” —I have seen many white women come forward, but women of color are often still disbelieved and dismissed, and that has been painful, to say the least. The pattern I’ve seen across the stories is this: Women of color are so disbelieved and dismissed that they internalize this treatment and question themselves—when they are brave enough to come forward, white women are quicker to defend whiteness than empathize. This happens too for trans people, when cis people try to justify the violence done to them.
Currently my obsession is about letting go, or frankly, disposing these internalized beliefs: that our stories or feelings don’t matter, that they have no place in literature, that I must swallow injustice and “be strong” or “be empowered” to “overcome” these extra hurdles, these extra assaults to my personhood I have to experience on a daily basis. Honestly, my obsession is debunking certain myths that have damaged us from the beginning: that we must set aside our own humanity to make other people comfortable, that we should expect that kind of treatment, that there will never be an end to this self-effacement, this denial, because if I deny myself first, then someone else can’t do it. I’ve begun writing poems from this place, this perch. Years ago, I didn’t even know that I was allowed to object to being treated like an object, only because this culture normalizes that to an incredibly unhealthy degree. If patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism is a virus that has infected the culture, I want to fucking contribute to the vaccine. That is my obsession right now.
How has living in different cities shaped your work? More specifically, how has living in DC affected your work, particularly in this seismic political time?
Every space I enter and inhabit has a history. Much of it is disturbing. I try to be aware of these histories, I try to know them, across the cities I’ve lived in and migrated to. In a way, living in different cities including DC has shown me that poetry is the opposite of politics in the way that it wields power. Poetry can have no power, or it can have all the power. Poetry can galvanize a social movement, or it can be read by no one. Living a few blocks from the White House, I am disoriented. I’ve never lived in DC before moving here in August, and being at the power center carries its own strange weight. It has definitely shaped my work in that existing in certain spaces can feel like a contradiction: you can come to a city ready to protest every day, but end up staying inside every day to collect the dust, collect the fragments of yourself you’ve forgotten, against this new, harsh light.
What advice would you give to poets struggling to channel their frustration into art and productive creativity this year?
I’d say really make use of the things that are hard, the unpleasant feelings you don’t know what to do with. Rage, fear, pain: if it’s getting tiresome to write about these same old traumas, then try another genre, try a different art form. There shouldn’t be boundaries. I really do think it’s a miracle that we give ourselves some power—as artists, writers, and poets—to rewrite the narrative, and in the best case scenarios, rewrite the pain. There is magic in crossing lines set arbitrarily by the world around you. You are a poet, but not just a poet. You are a survivor, but not just a survivor. You are a thinker, witness, visionary, and you have the right to expand your wilderness.
Which poets are you reading currently? Who do you look to for inspiration?
I’ve been lucky enough to teach a poetry workshop at George Washington University, where we read new and recent poetry collections by amazing poets of color: Safiya Sinclair, Morgan Parker, Layli Long Soldier, Tommy Pico, Jennifer S. Cheng, Solmaz Sharif, Aricelis Girmay, Ocean Vuong. In addition to these poets, I’m also reading Mai Der Vang, Monica Sok, Javier Zamora, and Jennifer Chang.
As possibly the last Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington, I have been returning to some of my favorite poets who, astonishingly, once been in this same position at GWU. Lucille Clifton, especially, who was the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington in 1981-1982—I return to her again and again, not just for poetic inspiration, but for the salve of reading her. Her poems from the terrible stories are full of hauntings and foxes, and my copy is terribly dogeared. Also, of course, Amiri Baraka, who was the JMM Writer from 1978-1979. I’ve been reading his poems since high school.
Your second book, Oculus, will be published by Graywolf Press next year. How did the experience of writing it differ from the experience of writing Mad Honey Symposium? Has your process changed?
Yes and no. I’ve always liked doing research for poems. You could say that Oculus is set more in a city, with more human inhabitants. The two collections have wildly different tropes and themes, but ultimately they have the same throat. I want the poems to speak and have a pulse that lives in the world.
Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). Her second book, Oculus, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2019. Her work has won a 2017 Pushcart Prize and is published or forthcoming in A Public Space, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, The Missouri Review, Tin House, The Best of the Net 2014 and The Best American Poetry 2013, among others. The recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, the New York Public Library Cullman Center, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Mao holds an M.F.A. from Cornell University. She is the 2017-2018 Jenny McKean Writer in Washington at the George Washington University.
Image source: Poetry Foundation
Yohanca Delgado is a editor-in-chief at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.