The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Sally Wen Mao about her latest collection Oculus (Graywolf, January 2019), yellow face in film, and finding hope in the face of the history of discrimination.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Was it just a coincidence that we settled on Anna May Wong’s birthday to talk about your book? I was fascinated by your twitter thread on that earlier today.
Sally Wen Mao: Indeed, it was a coincidence! Thank you for mentioning the thread. I felt like I needed to do her justice on this day.
Brian S: Well, a happy one, then. Can you talk some about how that group of poems came into being? Did they grow out of a single poem, or did you always conceive of them as a project of sorts?
Sally Wen Mao: Great. Yes, so the group of poems began with “Anna May Wong Fans Her Time Machine.” That was the first poem I wrote, and I did envision it as a series early on. I found her biography so compelling, and I felt it was one way I can learn more about/do research on early Hollywood depictions of Asians and Asian Americans over the years, the past century. I had seen other poets work on series or even book-length projects in persona, so I decided to pursue this persona voice. I realized in the making of this series how Asian-themed films made during my childhood (in the 1990s and 2000s) also impacted me, and so it became a personal project, too.
Brian S: I really appreciated the way you dealt with the difficulties Wong had in her career, the limitations that were put on her by Hollywood, and the roles that were denied her and given to white actors in yellow face.
Sally Wen Mao: Thank you! These are difficulties that Asian-American actors still experience to some degree.
Brian S: Like, in the end of “Anna May Wong Fans Her Time Machine,” you end with the lines “Take me now, dear comet // to the future, where surely I’ll play / some girl from L.A., the unlikely heroine / who breaks up the brawl, saving everyone.” And how that’s not really a sure thing.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes, in that poem I wanted to depict her hopes for the future, and how it could change. But later, when she uses the time machine, she recognizes the hope as somewhat naive.
Brian S: That’s something I’ve seen lots of actors of color talk about in interviews over the years, that even when they’re maybe being cast for a part, they’re always told to basically over-emphasize what a white audience sees as their ethnicity. They’re rarely allowed to just be a character. They have to be a caricature.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes, I often wonder about where the line is: to bear the burden of performing one’s cultural/ethnic identity seems so common when the artist or actor is a token “ethnic” person, and it is a burden many actors and artists of color tend to resent. However, I also don’t believe one can erase their ethnic identity or cultural origins, and I do not believe that the default norm is American white culture, which is implied in conversations too focused on the binary between culture and assimilation. Anna May Wong was interesting to me because she occupied neither territory. She was proud of her Chinese heritage, and when she went to Shanghai, she bought many Chinese costumes. She was unapologetic about that. It was the part where the culture is misconstrued and stereotyped, that was what she took issue with.
Brian S: There’s also the problem of how those stereotypes in movies or other pop culture can infect the behavior of others. Like in “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles,” where the schoolboy sticks the speaker with pins and asks “Do Asians feel pain the way we do?”
Sally Wen Mao: That is a detail that I got from her biography—in primary school, the boy who sat behind her did stick needles into her neck.
Brian S: That’s horrifying, and yet unsurprising that it really happened.
Sally Wen Mao: She and her sister were constantly bullied in school until they got sent to a Chinese school. It was during the time when segregation and the Chinese Exclusion Act was still very much legal and enforced.
Brian S: I was just doing that math in my head. That’s a part of US history that’s woefully under-taught.
Gwen Dawson: I noticed there are two different Anna May Wong sections in the book. Are the two sections differentiated in some way? Or did you just want to break up the AMW poems a bit?
Sally Wen Mao: Great question. The first suite of poems on Anna May Wong depicts kind of the more distant history, and the second suite attempts to depict a more present reality.
Gwen Dawson: Oh yes, that makes sense now that you explain it. Thanks.
Sally Wen Mao: For example, Wong Kar Wai films really impacted me when I was a college student, and the 2000s movies all came out when I was a teenager. With the exception of the Josephine Baker poem, which was all imagined. Both of these women were in Europe at the same time, but I didn’t find any recorded evidence that they met.
Brian S: That would have been one hell of a party though, I imagine.
Sally Wen Mao: Sixteen Candles came out in the 1980s, and I was born in the late 80s, and didn’t immigrate with my parents until 1991. So I guess unconsciously, I separated the poems between the films that came before, and the films that came after.
Haha, yes Brian, a hell of a party indeed. Anna May Wong used to party all night and come back to her hotel at around 7 a.m., so yep, hah.
Brian S: Do you think there’s been a turning point in terms of representation for Asian actors? Fewer Long Duk Dongs and less yellow face, Scarlett Johansson notwithstanding?
Sally Wen Mao: I think that’s only happened very recently, as recently as 2018. Who knows—I hope it will be an actual turning point, but when Joy Luck Club came out in the 90s, there wasn’t another film with an all-Asian cast until Crazy Rich Asians.
Brian S: That’s true. And not much better, if at all, on television.
Gwen Dawson: I’d like to say I loved this collection, so thanks for writing it. It was very thought-provoking. I sense quite a bit of anger underneath many of these poems. Am I picking that up right? Is that something you were looking to capture here? It feels powerful to me.
Sally Wen Mao: Thank you, Gwen! Yes, that’s interesting. I think the anger is definitely there, perhaps right beneath the surface. I haven’t written a plainly angry poem in a while—I think that this book I’m trying to work toward that, but it is a challenge.
Brian S: A form question, if you don’t mind. I noticed a lot of your poems throughout the collection are in tercets and couplets. Is there something about that division, that use of space on the page, that draws you to that form?
Sally Wen Mao: I think that tercets worked well for me when I was crafting the AMW poems. Maybe I just like the odd number. I tend to use form very subconsciously and instinctively.
AJ: Hi, Sally! I wanted to ask about that awesome section where you talked about the tensions inherent in being a PoC artist/artist from a marginalized community. How do you deal with the tension in being burdened with being an avatar for your community while also maintaining specificity within you’re work? Like, my immigrant experience as a Filipino in Los Angeles is gonna differ even from those that ended up in NorCal. And, I don’t know, I feel like there’s this conflict in myself as a writer between honoring the details of my experience (especially because that makes for better writing) but also feeling like that fails the broad experience. Does that make sense? Apologies if this is a bit muddled!
Sally Wen Mao: Thank you for this question, AJ! Yes, I do agree it is an age-old question: how to be the best representative of your community. For me, and this project especially—I think using AMW has helped me a lot, because she’s somewhat of an avatar and a public figure. And in crafting the poems, I wanted to try to take hold of an emotion that many in the community have experienced. And yes, absolutely your immigrant experience is uniquely yours. But specificity, I think, is what actually connects people to you. Being as specific as possible, you make your world come alive, and then your readers will be able to connect with your art.
AJ: Ah thank you so much! This is very, very helpful!
Sally Wen Mao: I think it’s a myth that there is some “broad experience” that is supposed to encompass all of us. We get attached to intimate details, and images that are unique, so I think as an immigrant writer, your biggest responsibility is to yourself and your story
Gwen Dawson: Oh, I like that point. Very true, I think.
Brian S: Yes, and I think that “broad experience” comes out of whiteness in the US. It’s tied into the idea that white people are allowed to be individuals while people of every other group are representative of their community as a whole. And it’s also a matter of multitude. So many stories and movies feature white characters, so if one movie fails to depict a character’s humanity, it doesn’t cast a stereotype on all white people.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes, thank you Brian. And defining individual also becomes pretty difficult.
Brian S: On a side note, I want to thank you especially for the poem “The Five Faces of Faye Valentine,” because after many years of my oldest daughter telling me how good Cowboy BeBop is, I’m finally watching it.
Sally Wen Mao: Oh, yes! That section of the book focuses on some anime
Gwen Dawson: I’m curious, do you have a favorite poem in this collection? One that just worked out exactly how you wanted it to in your mind?
Sally Wen Mao: I think the poems that I personally grow attached to are the ones that cast hope to the question of this legacy of discrimination and racism. Like, “The Toll of the Sea,” or the second “Oculus,” or “Resurrection.” These are poems that acknowledge the history and the pain of that, but attempt to make a case for the fact that we can still be empowered to survive and tell our stories and be fully seen as worthy human beings.
Gwen Dawson: Lovely. The second “Oculus” might be my personal favorite, though it changes depending on the day (and mood).
Brian S: That second “Oculus” poem is a masterwork. Especially the last nine lines building to that close. Just wow.
Sally Wen Mao: Thank you, Gwen and Brian! Curiously, I do have a story about that poem: It was the last poem I wrote for this collection. I realized at the last minute that I did not have a poem that addresses the architectural meaning of Oculus, which is a window to the sky on the ceiling of a building. So then I decided to write a poem about that time I was in the Guggenheim and saw the famous Oculus built and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I was at a Solange concert, and it had a dress code asking all the audience members to wear head-to-toe white, and it felt really powerful to me, because Solange is an example of an artist who has control over her image, and this amazing dignity throughout all her art. As I was writing the poem, I found some facts about that oculus, and the Guggenheim. It happens to be the most photographed place on the whole planet, which boggled my mind, because the first Oculus poem refers to a camera.
Brian S: Damn. Like the universe put that out there for you. Last question from me: who are you reading right now? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
Sally Wen Mao: Great! Thank you! I’m currently reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’m really excited about a bunch of poetry books that will come out in 2019. Magical Negro, by Morgan Parker, Loves You by Sarah Gambito…
Brian S: OMG. I keep getting these ARCs and you could have a best year in poetry just in what’s coming out in April.
Sally Wen Mao: And On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous—I know there’s a lot of hype already, but this debut novel by Ocean Vuong is insanely masterful. I read it so fast, and savored every word.
Brian S: I’ve got a copy of that and no idea when I’ll get a chance to crack it open.
Sally Wen Mao: Well, it’ll be there!
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us tonight Sally, and for this wonderful book.
Sally Wen Mao: Thank you so much, Brian, for selecting Oculus and being so thoughtful with this chat. Thanks so much everyone, I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to speak with you.
Photograph of Sally Wen Mao © Luo Yang.