Poetry as Protest: An Interview with Sally Wen Mao
Sally Wen Mao is the author of two poetry collections, Mad Honey Symposium and Oculus. The latter was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and has received countless accolades, including being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2019.
Mao was the winner of a 2021 NEA grant, a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and a 2016 Amy Award from Poets & Writers. She is the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, New York Public Library, and Jerome Foundation, amongst others. Most recently, she was published in the American Poetry Review, and she was the 2021 Shearing Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas.
In mid-September 2021, I spoke with Sally Wen Mao via Zoom. She had just moved into a new apartment in New York. We discussed what it’s like for her to return to that city after four years. We discussed hybridity, archival research, Grace Lee Boggs, and the activism of K-pop stans. We also talked about the seemingly perpetual erasure and commodification of Asian bodies and its correlation to the proliferation of technological production, as well as hauntings and dreams.
Kirby Chen Mages: In past interviews, you’ve talked about how you’ve been moving from one residency or fellowship to the next since graduating from your MFA program at Cornell University. Where are you now?
Sally Wen Mao: I’m in New York. I had left New York for about four years, and I feel pretty good to be back.
KCM: I feel like a lot of people are returning to New York, like there was an exodus and now it seems people are coming back, maybe because of the pandemic isolation and now wanting to be surrounded by people again?
SWM: Oh, yes. Maybe, that’s definitely a factor. It is a different life here than California.
KCM: So is the “residency hopping” period of your life coming to a close for now?
SWM: Yes. I’m actually entering into a PhD program right now. Maybe the residency hopping was contributing to my desire to be more rooted to a single place.
KCM: What are you doing your PhD in?
SWM: It’s English, but I’m hoping to make it a hybrid and adapt it to my own practice. I think Creative Writing and English are obviously very embroiled together in most academic departments.
Mainly, I’m just hoping not to move every month, but life is so unpredictable. I’m buying furniture that’s a little more expensive than I usually get, but it’s still not, you know, nice furniture. It’s not the dirt cheap furniture I used to buy. I used to just buy every piece of furniture for under $100 because I just didn’t think that it was worth investing.
KCM: I can relate to that. Is your PhD program virtual, in-person, or hybrid?
SWM: Right now, all of the classes are in person. Everybody’s masked up in the class and you need to present proof of vaccination before you enter the building. I’m still concerned about the fact that there are breakthrough cases.
KCM: Are your current writing projects within your PhD studies informed by the research process you were utilizing for Oculus?
SWM: Absolutely. When I was writing Oculus I was at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. It was a research fellowship. I was really inspired by the people around me who were doing hard academic research, like Saidiya Hartman. I was just blown away by her adeptness at the archive and the way she saw the archive. Those were the bones that made up her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. So that was something that really inspired me, and I could only hope to study toward those configurations of research.
KCM: I was thinking about hybridity with your work, especially after reading your recent essay in The Believer, “High Rise Syndrome” and your BOMB interview with Ann An-Lin Cheng, where you discussed “tragic binaries.”
SWM: Yes, Ann An-Lin Cheng. I love her, too. She’s another example of an academic person whose writing is just so inspiring to me. Actually, Saidiya Hartman was the one that introduced me to her and I will be forever grateful for that.
KCM: And now, knowing that you’re getting your PhD in English, do you feel like first and foremost you’re always a poet in the way that you’re approaching material, research, and language?
SWM: I do really identify with being a poet, obviously. And I definitely don’t identify as an academic. I don’t know if I’ll ever identify as an academic. But right now I’m working on fiction, actually. I’m interested in disrupting these boxes that we’re asked to put ourselves in–or not boxes, but categories. I think back to other periods of time, when writers were just writing everything. It didn’t matter if somebody was a novelist and they were writing poems. Great, they’re writing poems. They were doing all kinds of things at the same time, and I love that.
KCM: During the Antioch Summer 2021 Residency, you read a poem you said was a work-in-progress and part of a larger series. You mentioned that some of the poems in this series are shaped in the form of porcelain vases. Is that something you’re still pursuing?
SWM: Yes, for this newer project that I’m still feeling out, I’m very interested in concrete materials like porcelain and silk, and their production, which are very Chinese trades. I was recently commissioned by the Bard Graduate Center to write a poem after an exhibition that features European majolica–majolica being a type of ceramic that was produced in Europe and Britain during the Industrial Age. I was really fascinated by this commission, and I ended up reading up about majolica production. The glazes were made with lead and a lot of the workers in the factories were women and children who got lead poisoning and things like that. I’m really interested in the ways that beauty and value have been constructed, especially from something as old and prestigious as porcelain.
KCM: Now I’m thinking about the appearance of manufacturing and objects in Oculus. In poems like “Electronic Motherland” and “Electronic Acropolis,” there seems to be a link between the construction of the technological objects themselves and how we’re receiving information through these devices. I’m thinking about the manufacturing of those objects, in relation to your poems that reference more contemporary deaths by suicide, like the fashion model Daul Kim, the unnamed girl in your first Oculus poem, and the Foxconn factory workers. These deaths feel connected to more historical figures like Afong Moy and Anna May Wong–the lineage of forgetting and how that’s still being perpetuated.
SWM: I definitely think there’s a conversation to be had about the relationship between objects of value and the kind of bodies that are producing them. What happens when we really see into the ways in which those objects are shaped? “Electronic Motherland” was based on reading about the Foxconn workers in the factories in China who produce Apple products. There was a story about how they installed a lot of the suicide nettings into the dormitories, and then people were killing themselves because of the long hours and the factory conditions.
I’m talking to you from a MacBook, I look at my iPhone every day, and at one point, this was manufactured in a Foxconn factory. So, thinking about all of the ways that labor is not visible, right? And so, that serves as a foil to the other narratives like Afong Moy, Anna May Wong, and the girl who was on Instagram. These are people who are not invisible, but their visibility also generates this politics of invisibility for a lot of people who they’re supposed to stand in for. Afong Moy, in particular, was not just standing in for people, she was pretty much a product because she was used to advertise products: Chinese porcelains, Chinese silks, Chinese furniture. In a way, I’m thinking about all the ways that we commoditize bodies.
“Electronic Necropolis” is the death place of electronics. There was a town in China where the number one labor of that town was to take in all of the e-waste–all of the dead electronics, or the electronic waste, and resolder some of those metals. In the process of it becoming a leading city that specializes in that, all of that electronic waste was slowly poisoning the people by getting into the water and really impacting the average lifespan. So, I’m thinking about the ways in which the product gets placed over the person.
KCM: In a poem that you read at residency, you quoted the Chinese American writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs. Learning about her was a huge shift for my self-actualization, and so I’m curious about your introduction to her and how she fits into your life.
SWM: Yes, I feel the same. When I learned about her it was a very powerful moment. I was asked to be in a panel at Cornell University, back when I was still a grad student, about Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama. They actually asked me to introduce Grace Lee Boggs, so I did my research about her life, pulling up a lot of texts and videos, and I was blown away. This was when both Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama were still alive, so it blew my mind that we had these incredible women with us, and that they could be there to talk about what they had witnessed, what they participated in, and what they organized. Grace Lee Boggs is a huge inspiration: her politics, her ideas, the ways in which she aligned herself with Black working class struggles. I really hope newer generations learn more about her.
I really believe that not a lot of people think Asian Americans are politically active. They’re seen as a silent minority, or complacent, or the “model minority,” and that’s just not true.
I really believe that not a lot of people think Asian Americans are politically active. They’re seen as a silent minority, or complacent, or the “model minority,” and that’s just not true. There are also a lot of people who try to downplay Asian American activism. I do think the risk of looking to the past is that we don’t do enough in the present or in the future. I wouldn’t want Grace Lee Boggs to cause a reaction in people to be complacent. I hope her existence will give people the bravery to engage in that type of activism, and that level of activism, and believe in social change toward progress.
KCM: Is there anything happening currently that makes you feel like that progress is still gaining the momentum it was a year ago amidst the Geroge Floyd protests and the 2020 election?
SWM: One thing that has fascinated me is TikTok. I don’t go on TikTok that much, but I know it’s the medium for a lot of younger people right now for educating each other. That’s something I’m really interested in–these young people rallying each other up. Even just hearing about the K-pop stans going off by swarming different targets that need to be targeted. I love that. I love that a common love for K-pop will rouse people to do things that are highly political.
The people in power are very few, and they control so much, but how do you get your voice heard? Voting by itself is limited. You can really make yourself known by the sheer numbers. By flooding a website, right? Flooding that Texas website that was bounty hunting people who were getting abortions. They flooded that website with fake tips. That was great.
KCM: I definitely love the prankster element to it, too, where something about the humor in it makes it feel very alive.
SWM: Yes, exactly. It does, and I love that. And, when it comes to the work of poets, at the end of the day, poetry is a place that people have long associated with protest. It’s a place to go to when you don’t have that much hope, or you don’t feel that much hope.
When it comes to the work of poets, at the end of the day, poetry is a place that people have long associated with protest. It’s a place to go to when you don’t have that much hope, or you don’t feel that much hope.
KCM: In terms of the history of Chinese poetry, there are certainly iconic protest poems and protest poets.
SWM: Absolutely. Bei Dao wrote the poem “The Answer,” and it was used as a protest poem during student demonstrations. That is a very concrete example of the ways in which poetry can manifest directly into social action and social change, although it was a pretty bleak outcome. I got to meet Bei Dao when I first went to Kundiman. I was completely struck at the fact that I was in a room with him. I didn’t even know he was still alive.
KCM: You asked us this question during residency workshop, and now I’d like to ask you: Is there anything haunting you right now?
SWM: I’m taking a class on modernist women, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that time period, like post-1900. I’m thinking about all of the things that women, in particular, were going through around that time. I’ve been working on this fiction project, a novella that’s about eighty pages, and it’s focused on the experiences of women on Angel Island, an immigration station in San Francisco that existed between 1910 and 1940. It was where hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants were detained and basically imprisoned for long stretches of time. I actually went there when I was twelve. There was some kind of field trip the city of Mountain View provided. They took me up there to see Angel Island, and at the time they had these bunk beds that were recreating the bunk beds of the dormitories, and they also had these really scary mannequins that were on the bunk beds.
This summer, I went back there for the first time since I was twelve, and they’d completely remodeled the whole museum. Speaking of poetry, there were poems carved onto the walls. That was one really prominent feature of this immigration station. The whole reason why they have preserved it is because somebody discovered the poetry that was carved onto the walls, Chinese poetry. I’ve been thinking a lot about Angel Island and about the people who passed through Angel Island. They suffered through really invasive medical procedures and also really tough interviews that lasted for many hours that determined whether they would stay or be deported.
KCM: To counter the haunting, is there anything you’re dreaming of?
SWM: Oh, that’s a great question. I’m hoping for general safety. That’s what I’m dreaming of. Being able to get booster shots for people and being able to collectively find a way to heal. I am grateful to be back in New York after four years. I think I have a very fraught relationship with New York, so the fact that I feel like I can rewrite my experience here is pretty significant to me. I keep feeling like every few years I move back to New York, so it’s a cyclical and yet hopefully progressive motion. Dreaming up new ways to be creative and to converse with people. That’s what I hope for.
Kirby Chen Mages is a writer and interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. She is the recipient of the Elizabeth Kray Poetry Prize and she currently attends Antioch University’s Low-Residency MFA program, where she is Lead Editor in Translation for Antioch’s literary journal, Lunch Ticket.