An Interview with Colorado Review Contributor and Poet Stella Wong
Sep 19, 2019
By Colorado Review Managing Editor Jess Turner
1. Winner of the 2018 Chapbook Prize, American Zero is forthcoming from Two Sylvias Press. What was it like for you to curate your poems into a bodied manuscript? How long did it take? What are the concerns at work in your chapbook?
You never want to alienate the reader—my poems open with a declaration or an invitation. I am as inspired by conversations with loved ones as I am in situations where I am the outsider to a circle of strangers. There is something universal about the tribe—leaving, entering, and incubating yours. My mother is a big inspiration for my work, and through her experience as a reporter, I learned how to listen with radical empathy. Through her past as an athlete, I learned how to value and embody true sportsmanship, especially as the newcomer and the underdog.
Because of my background in music, I enjoyed choosing a soundtrack for the process, and then, I pulled from my MFA thesis. After the poems were first written, I took some time away from the work. I then revisited them with a fresh eye for my chapbook. I fanned out all the pages on the dining table, and took a lot of care to consider the reader’s experience. I selected which stories to share, which riddles to ruminate over, and placed them in the order and at the pace I wanted to build the poetic, narrative, and musical development.
2. Colorado Review is pleased to have two of your poems (“Pomelo” and “Everything About You is Offensive Except Your Cat”) included in our summer 2019 issue. I am entirely struck by the voice in these poems—so strong, specific, and simultaneously lyrical. The “I,” though sparing, is masterful. Could you speak to using “I” in your poetry and poetry in general?
Every time I take my first steps into a new field, I want to bring some part of my prior self and my previous practice. I use my technique and imagination to bridge and stitch together many experiences—real and conceptual, historic and personal—so the “I” encompasses not only myself, but an assemblage of a plural community in which readers can envision themselves and bear witness. Poetry, especially lyric poetry, is very much like writing a conversational script: in composition and in performance, it feels like a duet and a dialogue.
3. What poem(s) do you wish that everyone would read right now? Why?
I wish everyone would read other languages: Pablo Neruda, Vasko Popa, etc. Experiencing different schools of poetry opens my mind to the possibilities of language.
I look up to poets who do important work and advocate off the page—Eve Ewing, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Sonia Guiñansaca, and Muriel Leung come to mind; these extraordinary souls.
4. What was a meaningful moment for you in your life? What was a meaningful moment for you as a writer?
One defining moment was when I realized I had synesthesia—in effect, seeing sounds. It was a large reason why I could practice for hours every day; before learning discipline, I followed the stories being created under my fingers. Instead of keeping an ear to the ground, I kept an ear to the hammers and the strings. Along these lines, the movie Fantasia and its accessible and extraordinary portrayal of sound is a true feat of raw human imagination.
As part of a newfound intersection of my interests, this summer I coded the website Rhymestein, where writers and artists can upload written work, new or published, and add sound/video clips discussing, reading, or providing music to accompany it. Please visit us and add your work! The idea originated as a teaching tool to share with my fellow creative writing professors for their own classrooms. It’s been deeply exciting to expand my experience by adding a new skill set, learning programming languages and frameworks, and solving a real-world problem not only through the deeply intimate relationship of writer-reader, but also of, and for, the collective: student-teacher, performer-audience, critic-researcher. Hopefully by incorporating audio/visual aspects of the poem, highlighting users’ interpretations, and programming a reliable voting system, we can crowdsource more voices and opinions into the canon, and collectively create a more comprehensive and inclusive illumination of the poem.
5. What does your writing process look like? Where do you get your inspiration and ideas? And along these lines, could you share your favorite writing prompt and where it originated?
I don’t often use writing prompts. The old workshop adage is: if you have a message, send a telegram! A wise teacher told me: don’t write a poem. Poems are a way of talking about the things you can’t otherwise talk about. My poems start with something bothering me—something hurting in my life, something that I don’t know how to say. By engaging with the surface language, I find my way to being, to talk about not having something to say. This is how I get the language to speak for itself. Mark Strand said that poetry is pleasure. Looking at a painting of the crucifixion is not the same as being crucified. Looking at a painting of the crucifixion should invoke in you pain: suffering, loss, betrayal, an endless number of emotions. But looking at a painting of the crucifixion is, in fact, also pleasure. Lucy Brock-Broido writes about the oyster that gets a grain of sand in it. The oyster doesn’t like it; it hurts. The oyster won’t just accept life—it does something about it! I work the pain over in my mind, and I work it over in the language, and ultimately, I end up with something beautiful that comes out of something that hurts.
6. I recently finished Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, and I find it increasingly important to ask people about their joys and delights. What consistently brings you joy? What specifically brought you joy today?
What brings me joy is the idea that I, and everyone else, can have sanctuary. I close every message to my students with a beautiful note that’s really a prayer, inherited from my own teacher. I’ll leave you with that blessing today: Stay safe out there.