Ten years ago, I discovered Wong May’s first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, in an Akron, Ohio public library. Published in 1969, it’s a collection of short, lyrical animal poems about death, abandonment, and fear. I learned that Wong May was born in mainland China, attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the ’60s. Despite the fact that her two subsequent books (Superstitions, in 1972, and Reports, in 1979) came out through a major press (Harcourt Brace), I could unearth no biographical information about her and it appeared she had hardly published anything since 1977. When I contacted her in 2010, I discovered that she had been living in Dublin and had produced hundreds of pages of unpublished poetry. Her new book, Picasso’s Tears, was compiled from these pages. Brandon Shimoda and I edited the manuscript together, and it will be published by Octopus Books in June of 2014. I asked Wong May a single question over email.
THE BELIEVER: How has your relationship to poetry changed since 1978?
WONG MAY: Thirty-five years. Yes, you wake up one Christmas and you’re with three very clever men who live with a slightly retarded sister; the question is: how slightly?
Looking back on my life, I’d say I am grateful to my two sons for having brought me up. It could not have been easy—for them or for their father. For me it was a “Poetry Workshop,” a way of doing poetry by another means (in no sense a continuation of Iowa)—as well as the sort of upbringing I never got from my mother.
As luck would have it, I had a poet, a classical poet, for a mother. She didn’t write free verse; she wrote poetry until the last years of her life in the classical Chinese style. So a lot of work was done for me—when you imbibe Tang and Sung poets with a mother who chanted verses on the balcony in the moonlight.
At this point you will want to know about my relationship with my mother tongue. I shall say, Poetry is my mother tongue. That, however, does not preclude one from falling in love with another tongue—it frees you, rather.
I remember coming upon “Ash Wednesday” when I was a schoolgirl, with very little English. The book just happened that day to open on the page. So entranced by the vision of the lady in the garden—the desk had moved for me; I saw myself following the lady—to the end of the world.
But I began by writing in Chinese, writing short stories, having consumed volumes of Chekhov, Maupassant, and Turgenev with my mother, who couldn’t empty the school library fast enough. At that time a great deal of translation was being turned out in Beijing, when writers were too fearful to write. So I read a lot of foreign literature, all freshly translated—from Hans Christian Andersen/the Brothers Grimm/Dickens/Mark Twain… to the Russians, especially the Russians. My mother loved Chekhov, took to writing prose herself.
My relationship with my mother has a great deal to do with my relationship with my mother tongue. My mother always held me in her mouth, like a fiercely maternal animal—but just so that she won’t, can’t, swallow me entirely, nor let me go.
What happened was that I did get away. I got away to Iowa in 1966, and everything went on from there. When I left America, in 1970, I never dreamed that I was to stay away for half a lifetime. Had I stayed on, I’d have been a different poet. But that was not what happened. I married an Irish physicist, in 1973, and we lived in France (Grenoble) for seven years, before moving to Dublin, in 1978. Our elder son was barely a year old then; his brother was born in Dublin, in 1985.
My relationship with poetry and with English has changed—“further evolved”—over the years, with English becoming my children’s mother tongue.
What adverb would you use for this process: inexorably, adventitiously?
You could fall in love with English for the adverbs alone.
Writing has always been for me a way of being in this world; I moved about a lot, changing continents and suitcases.
But poetry—or rather writing—puts me “on the spot.”
I do feel a kind of anguish about the world—I was just thinking last night and early this morning, when you consider the loveliness of girls of this world (which is a part of the loveliness of this world) and see the faces, the beauty of children in refugee camps, it breaks your heart. How do these get to become mothers of bombs and martyrs?
Little mothers of terror,
The costly innocence—
Here’s Shostakovich on Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar: “People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.”
I can’t think of “Consciousness” or “Conscience” as two separate departments or compartments. The use and employment of words… I mean with the writers I admire, each word is a moral decision.
Yes, what one writes does place one on the spot.
Poetry is always and everywhere quarreling with the world. The quarrel is whether we can afford poetry, what kind of poetry we can afford.
In the early ’80s, I spent a year working on a verseplay—based on the life of Anne Maguire (whose sister, Mairead, founded the Peace People movement after Anne took her own life). Anne’s three children were killed on the pavement as she was wheeling the pram one day in 1976 by an IRA fugitive’s getaway car—the driver fatally shot by a British solder; this singular incident crystalized for me so much of the terror then in the air. Writing was a way of keeping clear—in the sense of fixing it, restoring it facet by facet, to clarity. Catching a moment of history like a fly in amber with the chorus of witnesses alive, outside. Above all, poetry affords this license and extreme economy.
I have no business, of course, to write about such matters, being a complete foreigner in Ireland. But you do it because it is nobody’s business. What you write is nobody’s business. Isn’t that poetry?
I’ve never gone out of my way to seek “subject matter” (my poem “How I Too Hate Subject Matter”). On the other hand, you can try hard writing about nothing and you won’t succeed. It’s the old quarrel of being representational or abstract.
As is my temperament, I have never worried about “staying connected”—and remaining alienated? That is probably even harder. I am not ever serious enough to be a committed and engaged writer. (It’s quite enough to serve poetry as a LOST CAUSE.) As for my lack of seriousness— if we are not “playful”—we would all die out. I think PLAY makes one watchful.
The long and short of this is, as I said toward the end of Guernica, “How I flee for my life when I see a long poem coming”!
Many, many years ago, on a platform in Berlin-Charlottenburg, as the train pulled off, I thought I saw a sign that said quite plausibly STATION SCHEHERAZADE. Could that have been the title of a collection of poems?
The poems are processional, station after station, a writing life. You write what’s been handed out to you by life. You do not choose the itinerary.
If I have raised more questions in answering them, one question may be that I’d be more of a problem to literary critics than to my readers.
I would say it’s more a question of temperament/sensibility/style than ethnicity.
Who are the writers I admire? Franz Kafka, César Vallejo, Emily Dickinson, Paul Celan, Yvan Goll, Bertolt Brecht, Simone Weil, Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño. The kind of poetry these people generate doesn’t come across as words, and you forget that you are “READING.”
I am very chary—and weary of the poetry of men and women of letters who “dig”—with a “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”
I read poetry to forget that I am reading. I write poetry to forget that I am writing.
By changing our habitual way of reading poetry, we change our way of reading the world, and vice versa.
I was blessed to have gotten to know Hilda Morley at the MacDowell Colony in 1968. Her books of poems are hymnals; I’m sure she’s one who died with praise on her lips. Thinking of Hilda as a poet and person, I have only two words: Praise Be.
This is where I get off. When we meet again, hopefully it will be on another platform.