Litdish: Dorothy Chan, Poet
Dorothy Chan is the author of Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, Forthcoming March 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is the Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.
10 Questions for Dorothy Chan:
1. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?
I’m currently working on my third poetry collection, titled Hong Kong Recipes. I’m studying my parents’ Cantonese recipes—the food I ate growing up, my favorite food in the world, like Cantonese-style lobster, tofu with tomato sauce, char siu, steamed fish, and corn soup for instance. I also really love dim sum and Hong Kong street food and could write and write and write about all of this stuff all day. There’s this great street food vendor in Kowloon, close to my grandparents’ apartment. It’s got curry fish balls on a skewer, grilled squid tentacles, egg tarts, fried pig intestines, stinky tofu, and lots of other goodies.
2. What inspires you the most?
Anything with some element of kitsch. I was building another house on The Sims 4 the other day, and it’s magnificent: orange leopard-print carpet, glass windows, “Princess Cordelia” busts, a rocket ship-themed pool deck, knights in shining armor statues guarding the master bedroom, indoor and outdoor gnome statues, wallpaper that pays homage to the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel Martinique wallpaper, etc. And while I was doing this, that scene from Behind the Candelabra when Michael Douglas’s Liberace walks around his Las Vegas mansion with Matt Damon’s Scott, and says “I call this palatial kitsch” kept playing in my head. Coincidentally, my parents live in Las Vegas right now. And also, coincidentally, Kitsch is the name of my favorite undergraduate-run literary journal from my alma mater, Cornell. But my love of kitsch goes back even before that: I remember being ten and visiting Las Vegas for the first time. That was the height of Caesar’s Palace, and I just loved it. I remember there was a Disney Store in the Forum Shops, and I loved how taking the escalator up, I saw a ceiling painting with Mickey and friends wearing Greek outfits. The whole anachronism of Caesar’s Palace still amuses me to this day—I mean, just what is/was “Caesar’s Palace?”
It’s important to write every day: no, you don’t have to write a whole poem every day, but you should be thinking about your poems, researching, and taking vigorous notes. You should also listen to your teachers and mentors. Finally, don’t try to be like anyone else. Do what you do best well.
I was also a teenager during the early 2000s, and my entire wardrobe was once Juicy Couture (not just the tracksuits). That entire brand is so kitschy in the best way possible: rhinestones and crowns and big jewelry and charms, etc. I loved how the JC stores use to have these eighteen-century style paintings in gilded frames, spray painted, and magenta chairs that looked like thrones. Kitsch is so much fun. My brain goes in a million directions whenever I see something kitschy. When I see a painting that strays on the sentimental and saccharine, the art history snob in me is at first really bothered, but then I start to analyze more. And when I see something that is aware of its own kitsch factor, I’m really amused. It’s tongue-in-cheek, and I like that.
3. Was there a specific person or writer who inspired you?
I was a really lonely kid growing up, so I turned to classic film, visual art, and fashion. I wasn’t interested in sports or dances or dating anyone in my hometown; instead, I wanted to watch Milan fashion shows and figure out the secrets of Andy Warhol’s life and listen to Robert Osborne’s commentary on TCM. I wanted to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Christmas and eat duck in Chinatown. And when I was bored on weekends after studying, I’d go shopping at Bloomingdale’s. I’ve always loved fashion, and I know this sounds cheesy, but fashion is moving art. Or I’d shop for snacks at the local Asian market, making me crave the snack aisles of Hong Kong grocery stores.
All these early interests initially inspired me to write. And then I’ve been really lucky to have some of the best poets in the world as my mentors: Norman Dubie, Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Jeannine Savard, and Alberto Ríos. My mom has also always been very supportive of all my artistic pursuits.
4. What’s your writing practice like?
I write as much as possible.
5. How does your day job inform your writing?
I’m currently a graduate student instructor and Editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is mentoring young women and young writers. Every semester, I introduce my Southeast Review interns to poets and writers that they haven’t encountered yet. I always need to keep up with my reading, which then helps my own writing.
6. What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers?
This may sound obvious, but it’s important to be dedicated to the craft. It’s important to write every day: no, you don’t have to write a whole poem every day, but you should be thinking about your poems, researching, and taking vigorous notes. You should also listen to your teachers and mentors. Finally, don’t try to be like anyone else. Do what you do best well.
7. What are you reading right now? What should we be reading?
This list is by no means exhaustive, but right now, I’m really excited for Cha’s “Writing Singapore” issue. Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a lovely person and does such an amazing job with the journal. I’m also totally in love with Timothy Liu’s latest collection, Luminous Debris. I’ve been enjoying the work of Rae Gouirand, Hoa Nguyen, Ching-In Chen, Aja Couchois Duncan, Taneum Bambrick, Shauna Barbosa, and M’Bilia Meekers. I’m excited for my poetry dad, Norman Dubie’s latest collection, coming out this spring. I’ve been enjoying Dana Diehl’s chapbook, TV GIRLS, published with New Delta Review.
I love The Boiler’s latest issue. It’s one of my favorite magazines, and Sebastian Paramo does such an amazing job.
Ai’s Vice is one of my all-time favorite poetry collections. So is Barbara Hamby’s On the Street of Divine Love. Lucy Grealy’s As Seen on TV is a text I always go back to, as well
Of course, I’m also reading Vogue and Elle.
My father and I keep talking about doing tai chi together. I really should get to that book he gave me…
8. What is the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your writing?
My brain goes in a million directions whenever I see something kitschy. When I see a painting that strays on the sentimental and saccharine, the art history snob in me is at first really bothered, but then I start to analyze more. And when I see something that is aware of its own kitsch factor, I’m really amused. It’s tongue-in-cheek, and I like that.
I don’t like to be abashed in real life or in my writing. Maybe I come across as too tough, but I swear I have a soft side. I hope both of these sides (and more) come across in my writing.
9. What are your interests outside of the literary world?
So many things! Food, fashion, Japanese culture, architecture, travel, etc. All these interests inform my poetry. I had such a great trip to Tokyo this past summer. I’ll also be in love with Tokyo, because it was my first trip alone, overseas. I was nineteen, and that trip is still one of my fondest memories.
10. What question do you wish I asked you, and what’s your answer?
What are you craving right now? I’d really like a slice of cake. I’m pretty low-maintenance, but I always need snacks around when I’m writing.